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McKenzie: Crosby's return a chance for something special

Bob McKenzie
11/21/2011 4:37:47 PM
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Sidney Crosby's return gives us an opportunity for something that doesn't happen very often in the NHL any more, a chance, or maybe the hope, for something magical to occur.
 
Today's NHL doesn't lend itself well to making magic. It's not like the 1980s and 1990s, when Wayne Gretzky's and Mario Lemieux's domination of the game was at a level that today's young followers of the NHL might not even be able to grasp. It truly was a time when "you had to be there" to fully appreciate it. To feel it. The numbers simply do not do it justice.
 
Today's game is terrific. There is so much to like about it. It's hard. Every game is so important. The playoff races literally start the first day of the season, each point means that much.There are no soft touches. There are no elite teams. The difference between the best teams in the league and everyone else is, on many nights, negligible. Goals are hard to come. And while there are plenty of high-scoring stars in our game today -- the Sedin twins in Vancouver, Anaheim's Corey Perry last season, Phil Kessel in Toronto so far this season -- the brightness of their star, and their productivity, comes and goes. And the separation between one or the other is more often than not minimal.
 
Sustaining anything in the game today is a chore. Ask Alexander Ovechkin, who has gone from being the game's most awe-inspiring and dynamic presence two or three years ago to just some guy who's on pace for his second straight 32-goal season. Whether today's seemingly fleeting superstardom is a function of the game now or it's because the players simply aren't as other-wordly as Gretzky and Lemieux, it's tough to say.
 
But whatever the case, it's difficult, if not impossible now, for any one player to truly dominate, to transcend the game the way Gretzky and/or Lemieux did. But if there's one who might, who's at least got a shot, it's likely Crosby.
 
When last he left us -- in early January of this year -- the Penguins' captain was shredding the NHL. At the time of his concussion, he was on pace for 64 goals and 132 points. He was coming off a season before in which he had re-invented himself from playmaker to goal-scorer with a league-leading 51 goals and, of course, scoring the Golden Goal to give Canada the Olympic gold medal in Vancouver.
 
Never mind that he was probably only average throughout most of the Olympics or that in the playoffs of 2010 he was no more effective in breaking through against the Montreal Canadiens in the second round than Ovechkin and the Capitals were in the first round. He's still arguably the NHL's best player and the face of the game and he is our best hope at providing that special something that qualifies as magic.
 
Maybe that's expecting too much from a player who hasn't played an NHL game since Jan. 5. There is so much about concussions we don't know. Will he still be the same player? What happens if he's hit hard or takes a shot to the head? But being that special player in the game carries with it the burden of unreal expectations and Pittsburgh hockey fans have been spoiled, not once but twice, in somewhat similar circumstances.
 
The truly special players in our game find a way, against all odds, to do something extraordinary when the spotlight is squarely on them. Or, in the case of Pittsburgh Penguin owner Mario Lemieux, something spectacular. Twice.
 
On Dec. 27, 2000, Lemieux came out of more than three years of retirement, to score one goal and two assists -- the first assist coming 33 seconds into his first shift -- in a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. He went on to score 76 points in only 43 games that season. And he played another five full seasons on top of that.
 
Perhaps even more remarkable was Lemieux's stirring comeback in 1993.
 
In early January of that year, Lemieux was diagnosed with cancer. He knew he would have to take a couple of months off for radiation treatment. At the time he stopped playing, Lemieux led the league with 39 goals and 104 points. At that point, he had a 29-point lead on Buffalo's Pat LaFontaine.
 
On the day of Lemieux's final radiation treatment, March 2, the Penguins were playing in Philadelphia that night. Lemieux flew into Philly and when he took to the ice -- getting that rare standing ovation for a visiting player in the Spectrum -- he was 12 points behind LaFontaine in the scoring race. No one thought it possible Lemieux could come back to claim the Art Ross Trophy. But Lemieux scored one goal and one assist that night and that was special, but what he proceeded to do after that was the magic.
 
In one of the most remarkable performances in the history of the NHL, Super Mario went on a tear that had to be seen to be believed. It took him less than a month, 26 days and just 12 games to be exact, to hunt down LaFontaine and regain the NHL scoring lead. Lemieux scored an incredible 18 goals and 35 points in those first dozen games back, almost a three-point-per-game average. And he wasn't finished. In the final eight games of the season, he scored 13 goals and 21 points, including a five-goal effort at Madison Square Garden, where he received -- get this -- a standing ovation from New York Ranger fans.
 
In the 20 games he played -- after losing the first two, Pittsburgh went on to win 17 in a row -- Lemieux had 30 goals and 56 points. And it wasn't as if LaFontaine rolled over either -- the Sabre had 11 goals and 32 points in 21 games.
 
Now that's @#$%^&* magic.
 
No one expects Crosby to throw up Lemieux type numbers -- it's a different time and place, to be sure -- but is it possible in the Penguins' 21st game of the season for No. 87 to start making himself a factor in the NHL scoring race?
 
The politically correct answer is we only hope Crosby shows no ill effects from the concussion, that he's able to take a hit and keep on playing and maybe he needs to shake off some rust...but let's dare to dream a little bit here.
 
Toronto's Kessel leads the NHL with 29 points in 21 games. If he were to produce at the same pace and not miss a game, Kessel is destined for a 113-point season. Crosby would need 114 points in 62 games to eclipse him, or 1.84 points per game. In the 41 games Crosby played last season, he recorded 1.61 points per game, so the task is daunting, to say the least. But who says Crosby has to win the scoring title? Merely making a play for it would be something special, too.
 
The top five pointgetters in the NHL have at least a 24-point lead on Crosby right now. If they produce at the same rate for the balance of the season, top five status would be 98 points. In order for Crosby to break into the top five, he would need 99 points, or 1.60 points per game, just a shade under what he had in 41 games last season.
 
So is it possible? Hell, yeah.
 
There'll be some in Pittsburgh today, the older guys who have been around awhile, who will see the excitement and buzz and media throng for Crosby and think back to the Lemieux comeback(s). In tone and feel, today is probably a lot more like Lemieux's second comeback, the one from retirement, because it's a home game for Pittsburgh and the word came down fairly quickly that Crosby was coming back. It wasn't a huge surprise, like Lemieux's unexpected return from retirement, but it's still big news by any standard.
 
The Penguins themselves only found out at 2 p.m. yesterday that Crosby was playing tonight and they made the announcement of his return at 3 p.m. And now it's all anybody is talking about.
 
But in hockey terms, Lemieux's comeback from cancer in 1993 is probably more similar to Crosby comeback circumstances of today. That isn't to say cancer is the same as a concussion or vice versa. Crosby hasn't played a game in more than 10 months spanning two season, Lemieux's absence was only two months within one season. But Mario came back without the benefit of really training or practising at all and Crosby has been practising at the highest-tempo possible almost since the end of training camp.
 
For each game ticket in Pittsburgh this season, a different Penguin player appears on each one. Every veteran player on the team appears at least once but for stalwarts such as Crosby, Evgeny Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Kris Letang, Jordan Staal and Brooks Orpik, there's more than one game with their image on the ticket. The tickets were printed in August...and tonight's ticket bears the image of , yup, you guessed it, Sidney Crosby.
 
Magic?
 
It's a start, and here's hoping there's more where that came from because the game could always use some.
Bob McKenzie

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