Sidney Crosby returned to the Pittsburgh Penguins' lineup Monday after a 320-day absence and looked as if he had never left.
The former most valuable player and scoring champion, playing for the first time since a concussion sidelined him on Jan. 5, had two goals and two assists in a 5-0 rout of the New York Islanders at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. He scored on his first shot, a sensational backhander on his third shift, set up the next two goals and scored the fifth on another backhander, announcing his return with a flourish.
Crosby passed more than 300 players in the scoring race. Don't bet against his passing a few hundred more.
"A game like tonight, you run on adrenaline," he said during an interview on Versus, which changed its coverage plans to air the game. "The next few games it will start to set in and it will be tougher."
Crosby took 21 shifts and played 15 minutes 54 seconds, with a high of 7:10 in the first period. He played 4:31 and 4:13 in the second and third, preserving his energy. The playing time, he said, "was just the right amount." He absorbed several hits without incident, took eight shots and won 14 of 21 faceoffs, an impressive effort no matter the opponent.
Crosby was leading the NHL in scoring last season with 66 points in 41 games when he took hits to the head in two straight games and descended into a twilight zone of dizziness, headaches and uncertainty.
"The summer was a little tougher than I thought it was going to be, but that's the nature of those things. It's not easy to really gauge," he said. "You have to be careful. I'm really happy to be back."
Before his injury, Crosby was the NHL's most visible face, a polite, dutiful superstar. But the league's incessant promotion of him — which flies in the face of the game's team-first ethic — and the reputation he initially had as a whiner, has brought him detractors. Mario Lemieux, the Penguins' owner and Crosby's mentor, and Wayne Gretzky had their critics too. Crosby is a singular talent. The NHL is the better for his return.
Tougher Blackhawks ready for another Cup run
The Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup defense last season was doomed before it started, undermined by a salary-cap squeeze that forced General Manager Stan Bowman to dismantle his roster. The core of the championship team remained, but the players who brought depth and edginess were gone, and the Blackhawks made the playoffs as the eighth-seeded team in the West only because Dallas lost its finale.
"We have a very skilled group of defense and forwards, but we didn't have enough other players with grit and physicality," Bowman said. "Not fighting. I mean guys who are hard-nosed and make it more difficult to play against us. We have a lot of skill, but skill isn't always going to click. We were not that difficult to play against."
Bowman cleared enough cap space last summer to address those needs. He added defensemen Steve Montador and Sean O'Donnell, rugged forwards Jamal Mayers and Daniel Carcillo, and skilled winger Andrew Brunette, moves that helped the Blackhawks climb atop the West. Trading Brian Campbell opened a spot for 20-year-old Nick Leddy, who leads Chicago's defensemen in scoring with 15 points.
Although the Blackhawks stumbled badly last week and lost consecutive games at Calgary and Edmonton by total of 14-4, they're tied with conference leader Minnesota as they continue a six-game trip that will take them to Anaheim on Friday and Los Angeles on Saturday.
"We've played pretty good hockey. There have been a few games we've been unhappy," Bowman said in a phone interview. "For the most part we've been healthy and we don't have any glaring weaknesses."
The players he brought in, he said, have been vital to the team's solid first quarter.
"Daniel has played a big role. We've even had him on a scoring line with Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp and he's shown he's a better hockey player than people thought," Bowman said of Carcillo. "He goes to the net and he's gotten himself away from some of his antics. Mayers does a great job on the fourth line at center and on the wing. Steve Montador isn't afraid of anyone, and Sean O'Donnell is so experienced. He has helped our young defense."
Last week's demotion of forward Rostislav Olesz, acquired in the Campbell trade, gave Bowman the unaccustomed luxury of about $5.5 million in cap space to fill holes.
"We've never been in this spot. We've always been up against the cap," he said. "We have a lot more flexibility. I'm sure as the season goes on we'll look at things, but I'm not going to make a trade now because all of a sudden we've got the space."