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A Long-Awaited Return

By: Chris Gates
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PITTSBURGH (93-7 The FAN) — It’s been over 11 months since Sidney Crosby has played in an NHL game.

Today marks the 320th day, to be exact. Finally, to the relief of nearly everyone involved or interested in the game of hockey, Crosby returns to the ice tonight against the New York Islanders at Consol Energy Center.

Roughly 7,700 hours since his last game (462,000 minutes or 27,720,000 seconds), he’ll suit up with a Penguins sweater and take the ice in an actual game. It’s a return that’s been much debated since Jan. 5, when he suffered the second of back-to-back blows to the head. First it was Washington’s David Steckel in the Winter Classic in the open ice, and then it was Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman along the boards.

With all the time in between — extensive rehab, recurring symptoms and rumors revolving around his return — it’s clear to Crosby’s teammates and coaches that he’s ready to return to action.

“You watch him in practice, and he hasn’t lost a step out there,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The first game he comes back, he’ll be one of the best players in the league, still. Right away.”

Head coach Dan Bylsma had similar comments Sunday when the announcement of Crosby’s return was made.

“It’s easy to see in practice that he’s the best player on the ice with his speed and the way he plays the game,” he said, according to the Penguins official website. “He’ll bring that to the game (tonight).”

Bylsma announced Crosby’s concussion Jan. 6 and it wasn’t until March 14 that Crosby was able to return to the ice. When he did it was in a very minimal approach — shooting a few pucks and skating lightly with no contact. It raised the hopes of many that he might be able to return in time for the playoffs.

Crosby continued to practice in a non-contact role and as the team entered the playoffs, hopes were the team could advance far enough for Crosby to return for the final push. Such wasn’t the case, as Pittsburgh blew a 3-games-to-1 lead against Tampa Bay in the first round.

Shortly after the end of the season Crosby’s on-ice workouts were suspended for nearly two months. It was later announced that Crosby continued to have concussion symptoms as he tried to get back in the lineup for the playoffs. He experienced concussion symptoms again in late August and sought out second opinions on his status with specialists in Georgia and Michigan.

Finally, after what seemed like a summer of silence, Crosby called a news conference Sept. 7 where doctors Michael Collins and Ted Carrick ensured Crosby would make a full, successful recovery but that there would be no timeline for his return as it must be taken step by step.

Three steps were made clear to the public: Crosby returned to practice in a non-contact role Sept. 17; he was cleared for contact Oct. 13; and lastly, Crosby got clearance to play tonight.

While it’s realistic to expect Crosby will need time to return to anything reminiscent of his record pace last season — he had 32 goals, 66 points on Jan. 5 — his team doesn’t see any reason why Crosby can’t re-assume the label of ‘best player in the world.’

“If he does what he does in practice, he’ll be just fine,” Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said to the Post-Gazette. “He’s looked pretty good for a little bit in practice.”

Crosby will return with the linemates that helped him to his stifling pace a season ago, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. Crosby did not speak with the media after it was announced he’ll play tonight, but Bylsma did and said Crosby’s excited to finally make his return.

“I’ve spoken with Sid the last couple days and thought maybe we’d be getting closer,” Bylsma said. “I knew about the doctor today. The only thing I can really say is that I would liken it to the sound you hear in the voice of a player that’s going to go play in their first National Hockey League game. He’s excited. He’s anxious. He’s been wanting to play hockey for a long time.

“And as he’s progressed and gotten closer, I think anticipating, you try to put that in the background and not think about that. But now that he is scheduled to play (Monday), the anticipation is come to the forefront and he’s excited.”

After over 11 months, many share in that same excitement.

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