Bylsma: Sidney Crosby could play first game 'on adrenaline'
Sidney Crosby returns to his natural element tonight.
The hockey prodigy who took the NHL by storm at 18 returns from a career-threatening injury at 24, about to enter his prime, and hungry to again become the game's transcendent player.
"It's going to take time," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma warned in advance of Crosby's much-awaited return from a concussion in tonight's game against the New York Islanders at Consol Energy Center.
Of course, Bylsma is well aware of Crosby's physical gifts, his drive and his recent performance in practice.
"He's been the best player on the ice," Bylsma said of his team's practice sessions.
Crosby, who won a Stanley Cup, scoring title, Hart Trophy and scored the Olympic "golden goal" by age 22, has always been the best player on the ice. Will he immediately reclaim his throne as hockey's king?
Tonight is the first test, and he will be blessed with familiarity. Bylsma announced that left wing Chris Kunitz and right wing Pascal Dupuis will flank Crosby, and with good reason. Crosby's finest season — he produced 32 goals and 66 points in 41 games with those linemates last season — came in between the moderately skilled but hard-working wingers.
"Sometimes Game 1 is on adrenaline," Bylsma said, referring to the energy Crosby figures to feel tonight, and the letdown that could occur because he has been away for so long. "It's been close to a year for him to play a system, play to the expectations of where he needs to be on the ice and what we expect from our team."
There will be plenty of questions when Crosby takes the ice. The Penguins' power play, abysmal without him last season, has thrived during this campaign. His presence on the power play is a given, but who will be dismissed from the top unit• Bylsma has a tough decision to make.
"There's going to be some people that have less ice time," forward Matt Cooke said. "That will have to be an adjustment. It doesn't change anything. He plays the way we want to play the game. Without question, he does it with more skill, more flair than the rest of us."
The biggest question isn't whether Crosby will regain his touch — this seems essentially a given — but how he will respond to that first hit. Eric Lindros, one of hockey's great talents who saw his career derailed by concussions, hopes Crosby is 100 percent.
"I wish him back on the ice when he feels ready to perform," Lindros told the Tribune-Review on Sunday night. "I think it is fair to say that all fans of hockey miss watching him play and I only hope the best for him."
Crosby has been mesmerizing in recent practice sessions, blowing past defenders with his trademark speed. His timing, while perhaps not up to game speed, hasn't appeared altered by the lengthy layoff, as his practice passes remain as crisp as ever.
"The last week and a half, after the West Coast trip, I could see the level go up a couple of notches," Dupuis said. "It's intensity, the battle level. He was getting into those close one-on-one battles, poking pucks away with his stick, and just doing everything with that Sid intensity.
"That's when I knew he was close, closer than ever."
Conditioning might be an issue — "He thinks he's maybe only going to be able to play 12 minutes," Bylsma said — but there are few hockey players better conditioned than Crosby, and he has been skating daily since training camp began.
Bylsma did not specifically state that measures will be taken to protect Crosby, but given that the Islanders and Penguins nearly started a riot in last season's epic brawl, it wouldn't be a shock to see enforcer Steve MacIntyre in the lineup.
After all, this is the night when the world's greatest hockey player finally returns.
The Penguins are on pace for 103 points this season, and now their captain is back, which might be the ideal remedy for the team's two-game losing streak.
"We're certainly going to enjoy No. 87 being back out there," Bylsma said.