Crosby in full flight as entry to 1,000-point club looms

PITTSBURGH (AP) Five years ago, Sidney Crosby spent a winter working out in solitude wondering when the pain in his neck would ease and the intermittent fog in his head would lift. The lingering effects of a concussion in the 2011 Winter Classic left the Pittsburgh Penguins captain's once bright future uncertain at best.

For the first time in his life, the preternatural vision that helped make Crosby a star couldn't see the next move.

Reaching a thousand points? Heck, Crosby would have settled for the chance to score just once more.

''A lot of things go through your head as far as playing again, getting to the level you think you can get to,'' the two-time MVP said. ''A lot of sitting time around kind of waiting. It's hard for that to not kind of cross your mind.''

No longer. Not with Crosby healthy and at the height of his powers for the defending Stanley Cup champions. Crosby's 30 goals lead the league and his 59 points are second only to Edmonton's Connor McDavid, who is now where Crosby was a decade ago: at the forefront of the next wave of superstars.

The 29-year-old Crosby remembers those giddy early days. Yet he doesn't hold them as close as the ones that left him wondering if he would ever get back on the ice with his teammates, let alone return to the form that made him the torchbearer for an entire organization as a teenager.

So whenever Crosby becomes the 86th member of the NHL's 1,000-point club - he had 997 heading into a visit by Calgary on Tuesday night - he'll make sure the puck ends up in his father Troy's hands for safekeeping. And with it comes an appreciation that Crosby admits he didn't always have for his own talent and the historic company he keeps.

''I don't feel old but I feel like there are times maybe when you're younger it's kind of an extension of junior hockey where you're used to getting certain milestones and it seems to come easy,'' Crosby said. ''I think you look at it differently as you get older. It's just something you try to enjoy a little bit more.''

In a way, Crosby has come almost full circle. On Monday, Crosby and the rest of the Penguins practiced in the throwback yellow helmets the team will wear during a Stadium Series game at Heinz Field against Philadelphia later this month. The game will mark the team's first visit to the home of the NFL's Steelers since Jan. 1, 2011.

Crosby skated onto the ice that rainy night as the league's leading scorer and overwhelming frontrunner for a second Hart Trophy. He left it with his career at a crossroads following a blindside hit by Washington's David Steckel. Crosby didn't play again that season and just 22 games the next.

In Minnesota at the time, veteran forward Matt Cullen watched Crosby from afar and feared the worst.

''It's a really tough thing to go through,'' said Cullen, who dealt with his own concussion issues before joining the Penguins in 2015. ''You worry: Do you come out of it? Do you play with the same aggression? He plays with a kind of reckless abandon. You know how good he is for the game and how fun it is to watch him. It's just such a frustrating injury.''

One that finally seems to be in the rearview mirror.

The proof came in October, when Crosby was diagnosed with a concussion coming off his electric performance in the World Cup, where he led Team Canada to a gold medal. The news made the league flinch, but Crosby missed just six games and returned with an added dimension to his game: sniper. He's on pace to challenge the personal-best 51 goals he put up in 2009-10 and he's done it with line combinations that seem to change depending on coach Mike Sullivan's mood.

During one stretch, he's with young speedsters Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust, another he's with bowling balls Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz.

''Regardless of who we play him with, I think he has the ability to adapt his game to make his line effective,'' Sullivan said. ''It's one more aspect of Sid's overall game that makes him as good as he is and as elite a player as he is.''

Crosby is three points away from becoming eighth active player to reach 1,000, and if he does it sometime in his next nine games, he'll get there faster - much faster in most cases - than any of them. Crosby's 1.326 points per game rank fifth all-time, and he's the only one in the top 10 who made his NHL debut after 1994. Yet Crosby is hardly ready to say getting to 1,000 is tougher today than it was when his boss, Mario Lemieux, was tormenting the league 25 years ago.

''It's hard to compare,'' he said. ''I'm a hockey player but I love the game too and I have a lot of respect for what those guys accomplished. A thousand points, no matter what era, is pretty good.''

While teammates wonder aloud where Crosby's point total would be at now if Steckel's right shoulder hadn't connected with their leader's head six years ago, he doesn't. He's busy looking forward, not back. Considering how hot he's been over the last 15 months, it doesn't matter anyway. He's not limping to 1,000. He's sprinting through it.

''The way he's been playing, winning the Cup, the World Cup and everything that's come along with it, he's just on top right now,'' Cullen said. ''He's as good as there is.''

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