Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby will make his long-anticipated return to the lineup this evening when the New York Islanders visit the CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
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The 24-year-old team captain appeared in just 41 games last season and still led the Penguins in points with 66, although he didn't play after January 5 when he took a hit from Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman.
He fielded questions from dozens of reporters after the team's morning skate.
"It's been a long time and I'm looking forward to it. Something I've thought about a lot over the last 10 months so I'm pretty excited," said Crosby after today's skate.
"I've been working hard over the past couple of months but it's been a long time since I played a game, so I don't know what to expect," he added.
Asked if he had any apprehension about going into tonight's game and if he would be fully committed to making plays, Crosby said he has no concerns.
"No. I feel pretty good and I think anybody who's gone through this and missed this amount of time, you have to make sure you get involved early and get that first hit under your belt," said Crosby. "Maybe that means having to initiate a little bit more myself in order to do that.
"Anybody who's gone through this realizes that yeah, there is a felling-out process getting back into it but as far as my confidence level of getting hit, it's all there. I feel confident going into those areas and getting contact."
One player who knows all about serious head injuries is Boston Bruins centre Patrice Bergeron, Crosby's linemate on the gold medal-winning Canadian team at the 2005 World Junior Championship and his teammate on the 2010 Olympic gold medal-winning Canadian team.
"From my experience, it's just exciting to be back on the ice," Bergeron said of what Crosby is likely feeling. "It's a matter of getting the first game out of the way and having all the media attention out of the way as well and just worry about yourself and have fun."
Crosby said he isn't worried about Islanders players taking liberties towards him either.
"I think before [the Islanders] have always keyed on me anyways, so I don't think that's going to change," he said. "But no, I don't expect anybody to try anything. I expect them to play hard like they always have but no, I don't think anything stupid."
Crosby has practiced with the club since training camp opened Sept. 17 and has remained symptom-free from the concussion that occurred over 10 months ago.
"Crosby's return tonight is very exciting because it allows the possibility of magic happening," TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie said on TSN Radio 990. "When I look at today's NHL, it's a really good product. Any given night you watch a game and it's really good hockey… but the difference between the hockey now and the hockey when Gretzky and Lemieux played is that there isn't that much potential for magic on any given night. It's just good, hard hockey that's fun to watch.
"With a player like Crosby, you allow for the possibility that something magical might happen when he steps out on the ice, ala Mario Lemieux when he came back from cancer and out of retirement. There's that sense of anticipation and excitement, and that's good for the game."
At today's practice, Crosby skated on the second line with Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, while Evgeni Malkin continued to centre the top line along side Steve Sullivan and James Neal. Jordan Staal will man the middle on the third line between Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy. Crosby's return restores one of the strengths of the Penguins' roster, as the team will finally have their top three centres healthy for only the third time in the last two years.
"It's exciting, it really is. This summer when I signed as a free agent, it was the thought playing with Crosby and Malkin and a very talented Pittsburgh Penguins [team]. Now that he's back you look at the amount of people that are here, it's created a buzz. I'm really looking forward to tonight," said Sullivan.
Head coach Dan Bylsma said that he expects Crosby to play more than 12 minutes in tonight's contest.
"He's going to want to get on the ice a lot more than 12 minutes," admitted Bylsma. "There's not a predetermined time, there is not a goal to say we're going to do 14 or 15 or 16 or 20 minutes. The game will dictate it a little bit. More power plays would mean more time on the ice.
"He's going to have a lot of adrenaline going and that first time you do get some fatigue," said Bylsma. "We're going to monitor it a little bit, but he's going to get out there and he's going to play a fair amount."
Despite having lost their last two games, the Penguins have managed to stay in the mix of the Eastern Conference even without their star forward. Pittsburgh is 11-6-3 so far this season and find themselves in fourth place in the conference and tied with the Philadelphia Flyers for the lead in the Atlantic Division.
They will face an Islanders team that is in last place in the conference and will have 21-year-old rookie Andres Nilsson making his first start in net. Regardless, the Islanders will not be changing their approach due to Crosby's return.
"It shouldn't change the way we play against them or the league plays against them," stated Islanders forward John Tavares. "You're not going out there to hit anyone in the head or intent to injure, but you finish your checks and you play the game the right way."
"He's a dynamic player and he plays hard and he goes into the tough areas, so there's going to be contact. I don't think that we as oppositions can let that get in our heads. We have to play physical regardless of who its against," said Islanders defenceman Steve Staios.
Following tonight's game against the Islanders, Crosby and the Penguins host the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday and the Ottawa Senators on Friday, before returning to the road to take on the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night.