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The spectacular Crosby Show returns, unbelievably yet inevitably

PITTSBURGH -- It's impossible to explain how or why the world's best athletes always seem to rise to meet expectations -- as enormous as they may be. Maybe it's the expectations of a franchise that was scouring for pennies not so long ago, hoping for another savior. Or a city that was looking for its third Stanley Cup. Maybe it's the expectations of a hockey-mad nation, wishing only to capture Olympic gold on its home ice. But in his relatively short career, Sidney Crosby doesn't seem to let expectations go unrealized. Perhaps that is the defining quality, what separates the very best from everyone else.

The anticipation of his return from successive concussions suffered in January built up to unbelievable proportions Monday night. There were countdown clocks, #CrosbyWatch hashtags, scalpers outside selling tickets for three times face value. There were hockey analysts predicting three-point nights, and enough media in the locker room that it could easily be mistaken for the playoffs. Everyone wondered what to expect. And Crosby, once again, didn't fail to impress, scoring four points in his first game in more than 10 months, leading the Penguins to defeat the Islanders 5-0 at Consol Energy Center.

"It felt like I was waiting for this game forever," Crosby said. "I've been waiting a long time to get this chance to go out there. ... There was a lot of energy stored in there after missing all of that time."

That became evident almost immediately. On just his third shift, Crosby found an opening in the Islanders defense, a lane to goalie Anders Nilsson, a 21-year-old backup's backup's backup making his first NHL start. With the puck on his stick, the Penguins superstar put his body between the puck and defender Andrew MacDonald and came in with speed, made a move and flipped it to the roof of New York's net. Nilsson, apparently not expecting a backhand shot up high, dropped to his knees and watched the puck soar over his left shoulder.

Less than an hour earlier, during warmups, Crosby had tried a couple of backhand flips as he leisurely skated to the net. Twice, he hit post. Perhaps it was jitters, the anxiousness of his first game back since Jan. 5, but something made him double back to the empty goalmouth. While his teammates took nonchalant shots on net around him, Crosby positioned himself right next to the net and flipped pucks up and in on his backhand. One ... two ... three, four ... This is Crosby, the perfectionist.

It took just 5 minutes, 24 seconds for the Pittsburgh superstar to remind the hockey world exactly what it has been missing, to remind himself of what he's been missing. The goal light went off, beginning Crosby's one-game scoring rampage, and the center let out a burst of excitement, joy and relief with a PG-13 exclamation, loosely translated to, "Flip, yeah." After more than 10 months without that feeling coursing through his veins, he couldn't help himself. When he went back to the bench and looked up at the video board replay, he saw himself mouth that rather blue word. After the game, he sheepishly demurred: "I hope nobody was reading lips at home."

But it was difficult to miss a thing Crosby did all night. Before the period was through, he added an assist, finding defenseman Brooks Orpik open at the point for a one-timer. With Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic chasing along the half-wall, Crosby slid a clean backhand pass to Orpik, whose blast beat Nilsson cleanly at 16:29. Any questions of rust, of hesitation or anxiety were answered just five shifts into his season; already, Crosby had two points. By the time the final horn blew, he had added two more, another goal and assist.

The comparisons to another Pittsburgh comeback were obvious. When Mario Lemieux came out of retirement to rejoin the Penguins in December 2000, after three-and-a-half years out of the game, there were similar questions regarding his effectiveness, his ability to be as wondrous as he once was. And like Lemieux, who had picked up an assist on his first shift back, Crosby's actions come with an air of authority. The parallels between the two games are abundant. Both ended in 5-0 blowouts, and the Penguins' returning superstar earned his billing, early and emphatically. It seems more and more that not only are their lives intertwined -- Lemieux is famously Crosby's longtime landlord -- but also their legends.

"[Tonight] was special in a lot of ways," coach Dan Bylsma said. "It was special to see him step out on the ice even for warmups, for the opening announcement. And then the first draw ... he battles like it's the last draw of the season. The way he played, his goal, there were a lot of things that were special. ... It was a pleasure to be behind the bench."

Bylsma allowed himself moments to watch this game as a fan, to stand back in awe, like the other 18,571 fans at Consol Energy Center.

"I went out there for warmups, which I don't normally do," he said. "Usually I look straight forward when players come out on the ice, but I kind of wanted to see the reaction when Sidney stepped out on the ice. There was a large part of me that was a spectator tonight, and I enjoyed that a little bit."

Across Canada, the game aired on the CBC, which had made the impromptu decision Sunday to show Crosby's comeback in a special edition of Hockey Night in Canada, in lieu of episodes of Coronation Street, Jeopardy! and Just for Laughs (Indeed, the Islanders may have made it onto that show, too).

After a spectacular first game back, one that will go down with Lemieux's three-point comeback in 2000 as one of the most memorable in history, the NHL's best player emphatically signaled, He's back. And with that, a four-point performance that seemed at times both unbelievable and inevitable, the hockey world may now return to its regularly scheduled programming: The Crosby Show.

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