Several hours before he appeared in his first NHL game since Jan. 5, Sidney Crosby was asked if he talked to Mario Lemieux about his amazing comeback 11 years ago.
Lemieux's medical history was much more serious than Crosby's concussion, a life-threatening brush with Hodgkin's Disease that, along with back problems, forced him to retire in 1997 at the age of 31. But No. 66 came back more than three years later on Dec. 27, 2000, earned an assist on his first shift, a goal and two assists in his first game and ran up 76 points in 43 games over the rest of the season.
"Yeah, I remember it," said Crosby, who watched it unfold on television as a 13-year-old in Cole Harbour, N.S. "He set the standard pretty high for first shifts in comebacks and stuff. It's pretty hard to match that."
Pretty hard, eh?
Crosby, 24, made it look all too easy, albeit with the help of the passive New York Islanders, who offered only token resistance in losing 5-0 Monday night.
On his first shift, Crosby just missed an assist when linemate Chris Kunitz hit the post. So he did it all by himself on his third shift with a goal for the ages and added two assists by the end of the second period to match Lemieux. Then he topped him at 2:06 of the third period with a backhand goal to make it four points in his first game since Jan. 5.
It may have been a night for the ages but for Crosby it was simply about being back in the game.
"The goals and assists were great but just being back out there, I can't really describe it," he said. "The main thing was just the joy of playing. It felt like I was waiting forever."
The crowd of 18,571 at the Consol Energy Center, the 219th consecutive sellout for the Penguins, warmed up by giving Crosby a standing ovation when he stepped out for the pre-game skate. Then they greeted the announcement he was in the starting lineup with a huge roar.
"I expected people to be loud but that was far beyond what I expected," Crosby said. "That was special."
Five minutes, 24 seconds into his first game and on his third shift, Crosby sent a fresh jolt through the already electrified crowd.
He took a pass from right winger Pascal Dupuis in the high slot, wheeled around Islander defenceman Andrew MacDonald and shifted the puck to his backhand. He lifted it under the crossbar on rookie goaltender Anders Nilsson, who was making his first NHL start. It was a highlight-reel goal that should have come from someone in mid-season form but Crosby is not just anyone.
"I saw for a fair bit of time, a few seconds, they were flatfooted at the blue line," Crosby said. "I was able to get some speed up."
For those who like statistical symmetry, the goal made Crosby plus-66 for his NHL career.
"You can expect everything from him," Dupuis said of Crosby. "He's out [for months]and gets four points. That's what people with special talent do. He's a special person."
The Islanders, last in the Eastern Conference, may not have presented the stiffest opposition for Crosby but his game was at a remarkable level. His line created several scoring chances per shift through the first half of the game and Crosby's speed belied the fact he had not played in 320 days. In the early going, the Islander tried a few hits on him but Crosby shrugged them off and was left alone for the rest of the game.
"It was nice to get [the hits]out of the way early," he said. "There's probably going to be more and harder ones."
Shortly after the first goal, the scoreboard video screen captured just how much fun Crosby was having. It showed him sitting on the bench watching a replay of the goal. That replay caught him punctuating the goal with an exuberant obscenity clear to anyone with even a slight ability to read lips. When the replay finished, Crosby looked at a teammate and burst into a wide grin.
"It was pretty exciting and I couldn't hold that in," Crosby said. "I was watching the replay and reading my lips. Hopefully everyone wasn't reading lips at home."
Pity the Islanders defence pair of Travis Hamonic and MacDonald. They were assigned the task of shutting down Crosby. By the end of the second period, along with the skid marks left by Crosby, Dupuis and Kunitz, Hamonic and MacDonald were both sporting minus-3 in the plus-minus department.
THE FIRST SHIFT
Crosby and wingers Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz started the game. They were all over the Islanders on their first shift. They had three scoring chances and Kunitz hit the post on a setup from Crosby. The Islanders seemed just as mesmerized as the Consol Energy Center crowd.
THE FIRST PERIOD
Not a bad opening 20 minutes for Crosby. He had one goal, one assist and four shots on goal in 7 minutes, 10 seconds of ice time. He did skip one shift but also won five of his seven faceoffs. Head coach Dan Bylsma dialled him back over the last two periods, as Crosby finished the game with 15:54 in ice-time over 21 shifts. He won 14 of 21 faceoffs.
Pretty much forgotten was Penguins' goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury's second shutout of the season and first at home. But the crowd did give him a "Fleury, Fleury" chant when he made a big stop early in the third period. He stopped 29 shots. "There was a little bit going on over top of him," Kunitz said with a laugh.
THE OTHER GUYS
Also scoring for the Penguins were Brooks Orpik, Evgeni Malkin and Steve Sullivan.