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Crosby Comeback hinged on doctor's assessment

Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby listens to head coach Dan Bylsma during a morning skate in preparation for his return to NHL hockey action against the New York Islanders in Pittsburgh Monday, Nov. 21, 2011. Nearly a year after a pair of head shots put his career in jeopardy, Crosby is expected to play against the New York Islanders Monday night. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Gene J. Puskar

Sidney Crosby brushed aside the importance as he sat in the Pittsburgh Penguins dressing room, but his comeback Monday night rested on one final test in his doctors' office on Sunday afternoon.

It is called an ImPACT test, which stands for Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing. Two doctors gave Crosby, 24, a 20-minute computerized test which measures his symptoms, his verbal and visual memory and his reaction times.

Crosby's results had to be comparable to a baseline test he took in September, 2010, before two hits last January left him seriously concussed and unable to play.

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By mid-afternoon, concussion specialists Charles Burke and Michael Collins at the University of Pittsburgh's Medical Center cleared Crosby to play in an NHL game for the first time since Jan. 5, 2011.

"It's all behind me now," Crosby said Monday morning after the Penguins' game-day skate in preparation for the evening's game against the New York Islanders. "I went to the doctor yesterday, everything was good. I was comfortable with how I felt with contact; very comfortable and confident I was going to come back.

"I went through all that stuff and here I am."

Crosby was not eager to dwell on the dark days following the initial diagnosis of his concussion. He admitted to some worries about the length of his recovery but said they disappeared once he arrived at training camp in September.

"Obviously the first month in going through this was pretty surprising," he said. "There's all those things happening and you're not really expecting it. That was pretty tough. The length of time wears on you after a while.

"I think now is the easy part. I just have to play."

The news set off the predictable reaction around the hockey world. The media descended on Pittsburgh Sunday night and Monday morning, coming at Crosby in waves as he sat in his spot in the Penguins dressing room.

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He does not like sitting at a podium for formal press conferences, so Crosby sat sweating in full uniform at his dressing-room stall as reporters, photographers and camera operators squeezed in around him. One thing was different from the last time he appeared in a game: A wispy moustache, probably grown for the NHL's popular Movember campaign to raise money for cancer research, had tentatively taken root on his upper lip.

The chief concern after the puck drops, Crosby said, is getting the first couple of hits out of the way.

"Anyone who's gone through this would be lying if they didn't say they were a little anxious to get those first couple hits in," he said. "After that, things should be pretty normal in trying to adjust.

"I just expect to be ready. I don't know at what level but as far as what I need to do out there and create things, I expect a lot."

Make no mistake, those hits will be coming. Several Islander players said it would be foolish to allow the best player in the game free reign in their end of the ice.

"If you're not playing him hard, if you're not finishing your check on him, he can make you look stupid," forward Matt Moulson said.

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Crosby said he was confident about his ability to absorb any hits because he has taken a few in practice in recent weeks without incident.

"Yeah, a few. I can think of a few different ones," he said. "[Deryk Engelland]got a hold of me a couple weeks ago pretty good. And I went into the boards pretty hard last week. It's good to go through a couple of those.

"I'm confident and ready to go."

Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said Crosby joked with him that he would only be good enough for about 12 minutes of ice time against the Islanders, about 10 minutes less than his average of 21 minutes, 55 seconds last season, the most among the Pens' forwards. The coach said he has no specific plan to limit Crosby's ice time but he expects it will be more than 12 minutes.

"The game will dictate [Crosby's playing time]" Bylsma said. "He'll have a lot of adrenaline going. We'll monitor it a bit but obviously he'll play a fair amount."

Crosby will play between his regular linemates, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz. Since the Penguins were off on Sunday, the word of Crosby's comeback spread through some unusual channels once the Penguins announced it on their web site. Dupuis said he heard about it from his daughter, while Kunitz's wife told him.

While there was constant speculation about the date of Crosby's return and theories about how the Penguins would play it, Bylsma said there was no grand plan. He offered his own experience with Sunday's announcement as proof.

Aside from the fact the Penguins knew Crosby was progressing well in recent days and planned to see his doctors on Sunday, Bylsma said there was still no firm date in mind.

"There was a slight anticipation the last few days that Monday would possibly be the day," Bylsma said. "I heard from [Penguins general manager]Ray Shgero at my kid's game. I was watching my son and I was anticipating a phone call.

"If anyone thought it was a pre-determined date, my wife gave away the tickets for this one two days ago. My family doesn't have tickets for this game."

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