PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins would have accepted an average Sidney Crosby in his first game in nearly 11 months — a routine performance, a regular night at the office.
Instead, they got the extraordinary.
Crosby scored the game’s first goal on his first shot since Jan. 5, scored again in the third period and added two assists during the NHL’s most-awaited comeback game since Mario Lemieux’s return in 2000 as the Pittsburgh Penguins roughed up the New York Islanders 5-0 on Monday night.
Choose an adjective befitting the superlative, and it worked on this special night: Dazzling, exceptional, brilliant.
No one in the hockey world knew exactly what to expect as Crosby, hockey’s biggest star, played his first game in 321 days following his prolonged layoff with a concussion that caused him considerable discomfort for months. But few probably expected him to be this good, this fast, this dominant.
This much like the Sidney Crosby of old.
Even the score was the same as when Lemieux returned from a 44-month retirement to collect a goal and two assists against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Dec. 27, 2000, in the last NHL comeback to generated this much interest.
The Penguins, already one of the NHL’s top teams, now have a superstar looking just like the player who was dominating the NHL scoring race at this time a year ago, when Crosby was on pace for the league’s highest scoring total in 15 years before he was hurt.
Crosby showed not a speck of rust from his extended absence and was the fastest player on the ice from the very start of a memorable night. He helped set up a Chris Kunitz shot off the crossbar on his very first shift — shades of Lemieux getting an assist only a half-minute into his comeback — and was a motivated and driven player from the start.
And who could have scripted this any better — Crosby grabbed a Pascal Dupuis pass in stride on his third shift, accelerated to the net and, while fending off defenceman Andrew MacDonald, lifted a hard backhander under the crossbar only 5:24 into the game. Islanders rookie Anders Nilsson, making his first NHL start, never had a chance.
It never got any better after that for the Islanders, who dropped their 12th game in their last 14 overall and their 13th in a row in Pittsburgh, a city that isn’t very hospitable to them even when Crosby isn’t playing.
Now Crosby is back and, based on Monday’s game, appears to have the same form that saw him to score 32 goals and pile up an NHL-leading 66 points in 41 games before he sustained a concussion in early January.
For Crosby, the first-place Penguins and the league that has long awaited the return of its signature star, it couldn’t have gone much better than this.
He also took a few hard hits — the kind that can’t be handed out in practice — with Travis Hamonic shoving him in the end boards during the first period. Crosby quickly jumped up, not shaken a bit.
The standing-room crowd of 18,571 in Consol Energy Center was predictably loud and supportive, holding up Welcome Back Sid: signs by the thousands while chanting “Crosby, Crosby” as a huge No. 87 was displayed on the scoreboard before the opening faceoff.
There were signs everywhere — one read “Merry Sidmas” — from a crowd that came prepared to welcome back Crosby no matter how well he played, and was rewarded with a performance that bordered on the otherworldly.
During the morning skate, Penguins forward Steve Sullivan warned it might take any player coming off an extended layoff a few games to regain his timing, his top speed and his game legs, even if he managed to play a game or two on adrenalin.
Crosby looked as if he hadn’t missed a shift, much less half of one season and one quarter of another. He showed his playmaking abilities as he set up the Penguins’ second goal following a four-minute break between shifts late in the first period. His backhander from the left wing boards found defenceman Brooks Orpik at the point for a one-timer that beat Nilsson to the stick side at 16:29.
The score was only 2-0 but, given the emotion and the energy generated by the Crosby comeback, it was all but over.
It was a difficult assignment from the star from Nilsson, whose only previous NHL playing time was a 40-minute stint during a 6-0 loss to Boston on Saturday night. Crosby’s comeback didn’t make it any easier.
Neither did the Penguins’ third goal, scored by Evgeni Malkin on a power play with Crosby assisting 3:17 into the second period. Crosby drove hard to the net after coming off the bench and was turned aside by Nilsson, but got the puck back and fed it to Kris Letang at the point, who in turn sailed a hard pass to Malkin near the left post for his 10th goal.
Crosby didn’t figure in Pittsburgh’s fourth goal, scored by Sullivan off Malkin’s set-up only 2 1/2 minutes later. The big lead allowed coach Dan Bylsma to start trimming Crosby’s ice time a bit, given the Penguins play three more times in the next five days.
Not that Crosby was done.
He finished off the unforgettable night with his second goal, slamming a hard backhander off defenceman Steve Staios and by Nilsson after carrying the puck from behind to net to along the right-wing boards 2:06 into the third period.
With so much attention on Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury quietly went about putting together his 21st career shutout and second of the season, stopping 29 shots as the Penguins won their sixth in a row at home and improved to 12-6-4.
Now, for Crosby, it’s one game down, two goals scored and the rest of the season to go.