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Crosby tired but healthy after season debut

By Will Graves
AP Sports Writer / November 22, 2011
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PITTSBURGH—Sidney Crosby woke up on the first day of the rest of his hockey life and felt something he hadn't experienced in a long, long time.

Tired. In the best way possible.

"Obviously, it's been a long time since I played," Crosby said.

Funny, it didn't look like it.

Crosby returned from a 10-month layoff while recovering from concussion-like symptoms to score two goals and add two assists in a 5-0 romp over the New York Islanders on Monday.

The spectacular performance left Crosby emotionally drained. Erasing nearly a year of doubt and worry will do that.

Yet there appeared to be no hangover. Crosby joined his teammates in a spirited hour-long practice Tuesday morning, with his legs, his lungs and -- most importantly -- his head feeling just fine after his first game in 320 days.

The 24-year-old felt no recurrence of the "fogginess" that kept him sidelined for nearly a year after sustaining head shots in consecutive games last January.

Although he will continue to be monitored, he doesn't expect to check in with his medical team each day to give them an update.

"Unless there's really something I need to go to them for I don't see it being a constant thing," Crosby said.

Fantastic news for the Penguins. For the rest of the NHL? Not so much.

Crosby's breathless debut already has him fielding questions on whether he can win the league scoring title. He trails Toronto's Phil Kessel by 25 points with three quarters of the season to go.

"That'd be great, but I don't think that's possible," he said. "It's not even something on my radar."

He's more concerned with getting his legs back.

Adrenaline fueled Crosby during most of his nearly 16 minutes on the ice against the overmatched Islanders. It will fade soon enough, perhaps as early as Wednesday when the Penguins host St. Louis.

"There are things that as the games go on I'm going to have to improve and get better, but it's only going to happen through playing," Crosby said.

Even if it means he has to shake off coach Dave Bylsma to do it. Bylsma felt Crosby's 15:54 of ice time was just about right but pointed out nearly half of it came in the first period, including a power play shift Crosby earned by basically ignoring his coach.

Bylsma was preparing to call for a line change when the penalty was called. Crosby started toward the bench, heard the whistle and immediately veered in the direction of the faceoff dot.

The way his superstar was playing, Bylsma knew he had no chance of winning the argument.

Crosby scored his first goal of the season on his third shift, beating three Islander defenders to the net before flipping a backhand over the glove of New York goaltender Anders Nilsson. He later added assists on goals by Evgeni Malkin and Brooks Orpik before collecting his second goal on a relatively innocent backhand that caromed off Nilsson and into the net.

More impressive than Crosby's seemingly boundless energy to Bylsma is the way he played. He didn't force anything and fit in perfectly alongside usual linemates Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz.

"It looks different, but it's not off the gameplan," Bylsma said. "It's not taking chances. It's the way we want to play as a team."

Even if for a night it was all about Sid the Kid, who was so fired up after scoring his first goal since Dec. 28, 2010 he let loose a not-so mild profanity.

The outburst from the typically reserved Crosby drew a laugh from his teammates and a sheepish postgame apology from their captain.

"Don't read my lips," Crosby said.

He's prefer you read his actions, both his own and those of a team that looks very much like a Stanley Cup favorite.

Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 29 shots to collect his 21st career shutout, the defense was solid and the Penguins -- for the first time since losing to Montreal in the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs -- are healthy.

Monday night was just the third time in the team's last 103 games Crosby and fellow centers Malkin and Jordan Staal played together. It's a luxury few teams in the league can match.

It's also fragile. The Penguins need only point to last season as proof, when all three missed massive chunks of the season with injuries.

"I don't want to jinx anything," Orpik said.

Good idea.

Despite the giddy atmosphere at Consol Energy Center on Monday, the Penguins need only point to the calendar for motivation.

It's not even Thanksgiving yet. No need to start thinking about what happens after Easter.

"We didn't have a party or celebration last night," Bylsma said. "There are areas we need to get better. We have a long way to go."

And plenty of time to get there. There are 61 games left in the regular season. Few, if any, will match the electric atmosphere Crosby provided in his return.

The next five months will require more than emotion and adrenaline, and the Penguins know it.

"We don't think we've come even close to what our potential is as a hockey club," forward Steve Sullivan said.

Maybe, but Sullivan knows where that potential can take him. It's why he signed with the team as a free agent in the offseason, to get a taste of what it's like to play with arguably the world's best player.

Crosby more than delivered, putting months of speculation to rest with a mixture of grace and grit.

He knows, however, that it was just a start. He's just thrilled his long, achingly methodical comeback is finished.

"I was just enjoying the moment," he said. "It was good to be back."

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