The Kid's comeback was different this time.
When Sidney Crosby returned after an 11 1/2-month layoff on Nov. 21, there was plenty of emotion, excitement and excellence form No. 87. The Pittsburgh Penguins captain didn't dip his toe in to test the waters, he dove in.
He won the opening face-off. He almost set up a teammate for a quick goal on his first shift. He deposited a backhand past an overmatched New York Islanders goalie Anders Nilsson on his third shift. He departed with a memorable four-point evening in the Penguins' 5-0 win.
This time, the Penguins eased Crosby back in after his 40-game, 100-day absence from action following his latest concussion/neck injury setback. Sure, one his new linemates for the time being, the reformed Matt Cooke, scored on Crosby's first shift just less than three minutes into Pittsburgh's 5-2 win over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. But Crosby didn't get that involved physically, and don't expect him to ratchet up that part of his game until later this month.
"Last time I probably was trying to test myself more than I needed to," Crosby said. "Tonight, I wasn't really looking for it quite as much. I feel like I was able to do that leading up to the games. I didn't have to go looking for it. I wasn't trying to avoid it, but I wasn't as quick to initiate as last time to test myself."
Crosby and the Penguins learned their lesson last fall. He took on too much, too swiftly. And with three games in four nights, the Penguins will closely watch Crosby's progress this time around.
Here's a glance at his nine games this season (goals, assists, points, shots on goal, shifts and minutes played):
Crosby wound up playing six more seconds on Thursday than he did in his exhilarating return affair last November. But this time he hopped over the boards for three fewer shifts. He played a secondary role on the third line with Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, saw some power-play duty and occasionally a shift alongside Jordan Staal.
Crosby and Staal
Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma remarked after his team's 10th win in a row - matching the Stanley Cup-champion Boston Bruins for the longest streak of the season - that he plans to use Crosby and Staal together more on the weekend when the Penguins visits New Jersey and Philadelphia.
"I'd like to keep seeing [Staal] with Crosby," Bylsma said. "He played the wing for a few shifts. Staal down low is so strong and can create turnovers and go the other way. I liked seeing that and you'll continue to see that in the next two games."
Crosby picked up a point just as a Penguins power play expired early in the third period, when he backhanded a pass to Chris Kunitz for a 4-2 lead. The Penguins captain beat Rangers centre Brad Richards a few shifts later and the play led to a Pascal Dupuis goal.
As solid as Crosby was, defenceman Kris Letang was even better. He too returned after an eight-game absence with a head injury. Letang picked up an assist, but even more impressive was his plus-five rating.
"Plus-five, man, that's pretty remarkable," Bylsma said. "That's a 77 if you're counting golf scores. He's just so strong in so many areas of the game, offensively and defensively with the puck, his skating ability. Putting him back in there with Paul Martin immediately adds to how we defend, but also to how we move the puck as well. I thought Kris looked strong again."
The Rangers were without their all-world goalie Henrik Lundqvist, captain Ryan Callahan and defenceman Michael Del Zotto because of injuries. But with Crosby and Letang back from the concussion world, and Evgeni Malkin playing the way he has in the new year, the Penguins feel they can reach top spot in the East. They moved to within four points of the Rangers and have a game in hand.
Whether or not the Penguins, who went 26-13-1 without Crosby over the past 100 days, can pass the Rangers, they have become the team to beat in the East now as long as they stay healthy.
Do you have improvements to suggest for this page?