PITTSBURGH - It is why we watch.
It is why we love sports, love hockey, invest our passion, nurture it, pass it on to our kids.
It is for nights like Monday, for moments that only the truly great can deliver when the expectations hang, usually unreasonably, so heavy in the air.
Sidney Crosby came back to hockey on Monday night, came back after 319 days away, and, well, c’mon.
When he left last January, after getting hit in the head in successive games, he was having a season that saw him with a 10-point lead in the scoring race halfway through the season, 66 points in 41 games which included 51 one of those points in a 25-game scoring streak.
Crosby, the Penguins, the game and its fans saw something special disappear in that fog that enveloped Crosby and his concussion.
What would we see upon his return?
It only took a little over five minutes to find out.
Crosby took off on a 170-foot dash up the middle of the ice, knifed through the New York Islanders defence and lifted a wicked backhander by Islanders rookie goaltender Anders Nilsson to open the scoring at the Consol Energy Center at 5:24.
Before the period was out, he added an assist on a goal by Pens defenceman Brooks Orpik. He added a second assist early in the second on a power-play goal by Evgeni Malkin, scored another goal, again on a backhand, early in the third (two goals and an assist on backhands).
Four points on the night.
There have been 711 players in the NHL this season. In one night, Crosby moved into the middle of the pack in scoring (373rd).
“The goals and assists were great obviously, but just to be back out there, I can’t even really describe it,” said Crosby. “I was excited, anxious. A lot of things were going through my mind. The main thing was the joy of playing. That’s something I missed a lot in the last 10 months.”
With the crowd giving him a standing ovation when he came onto the ice for the warmup and greeted by Aerosmith singing Back in the Saddle, all eyes were on Crosby — and he didn’t disappoint.
The truly special ones seldom do. With a minute to go in the 5-0 Pittsburgh win, they chanted his name again.
He showed early he was back in form, battling for the opening faceoff against New York’s John Tavares.
“The first draw, it’s a faceoff,” said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, “and he battled like it was the last draw of the season.”
He looked like the Sid we knew. So fast. So strong, using his body, twisting and turning masterfully to protect the puck and create space for himself.
Problems with his vestibular system? He left Isles defenceman Milan Jurcina looking like the guy with the vestibular problem with a switchback along the wall seconds before scoring his second goal.
Of course, everybody was waiting to see how Crosby would respond to that first good hit and everybody is pretty much still waiting. The official attendance for Crosby’s return to the Consol Energy Center was 18,571, but that was off by about 17 or 18. Those were the Islanders who stood around and watched the Crosby show. The only thing they were missing were their own “SID” signs which each fan in the building held aloft when Crosby skated onto the ice.
And what was Islanders coach Jack Capuano thinking throwing a rookie goaltender into a game that was to be as electrically charged as this?
There’s something about Pittsburgh, the Penguins and comebacks.
Mario Lemieux, Crosby’s boss and former landlord, came back after three years of retirement in 2000, had a point 33 seconds into his first shift and ended the night with a goal and two assists.
“Yeah, I remember it. He set the standard pretty high for first shifts in comebacks and stuff,” said Crosby Monday morning. “It’s pretty hard to match that. Anyone who has missed a length of time like that, I think is just so happy to be back playing. Obviously there’s expectations, but I think you just try to enjoy being back and try and make the most of the opportunity.”
Afterwards, he said: “(Lemieux’s comeback) was a great memory. I got a great one from this one.”
We all did.
It’s why we watch, why we anticipate and, ultimately, why we love sports, why we love hockey.
For moments like that.
HEAT OF CELEBRATION
PITTSBURGH — Sidney Crosby said he hopes nobody was reading his lips.
If they were, the Pittsburgh Penguins captain can probably be forgiven.
After turning the lamp red behind New York Islanders goaltender Anders Nilsson just five minutes into his comeback, Crosby turned the air blue.
He could be seen mouthing a four-letter word in the aftermath of scoring his first goal in almost 11 months on a dazzling backhander five minutes and 24 seconds into the Penguins 5-0 victory.
Crosby could be seen laughing on the bench after watching a replay of his post-goal celebration.
“Don’t read lips,” he joked after the game. “I was obviously really excited. Part of waiting to play is waiting get that first (goal) and it came pretty early which was pretty nice. I was watching the replay and reading my lips. Hopefully everyone wasn’t reading my lips at home. It was pretty exciting and I couldn’t hold that in.”
Crosby took a couple of hits in the game — including a crosscheck in the back from Islanders defenceman Milan Jurcina for which Jurcina was penalized — and a hit from New York’s Travis Hamonic, but said he came out none the worse for wear.
“I was mad at myself for putting myself in that position. I was flat-footed and standing up straight and was a pretty easy target,” said Crosby of the Hamonic hit. “Once you get on the bench and realize everything is good, it’s always a good feeling. I was glad I kind of got that over with early on. There’s going to be more hits and probably harder ones. To come out of that okay, I think, gives you some reassurance.”
“The crowd was going — everyone was pretty fired up — and he’s a guy who likes to battle and kind of go head-to-head with guys,” said Hamonic. “I found myself with an opportunity to finish a check on him and that’s just what I did. I just tried to win my battle.”