Sidney Crosby braced himself as New York Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi lowered his shoulder before checking Crosby into the corner boards early in the penultimate regular-season game on Thursday.
Crosby lay on the ice briefly — long enough for some Pittsburgh Penguins fans to grow concerned about their captain.
“There is still a section of fans who think he’ll get re-injured on the next hit,” said Jay Crissman, who sat alongside his four-year-old son — both in Crosby jerseys — a few feet from the collision.
Crosby played the final 14 games of the regular season and hasn’t had any setbacks stemming from the concussion-related issues that have kept him off the ice for long stretches the last two seasons. Wednesday’s series-opening contest against the Philadelphia Flyers will be the first postseason game for either Crosby or Evgeni Malkin — the leading scorer in the NHL this season with 109 points — in 23 months.
“I am excited,” Crosby told FOXSports.com. “I don’t know if it will be any different. I think the same things that you look back or draw upon from the past, is the same things that make every team successful. That hasn’t really changed. You have to find out what you need to do to contribute and make sure you do it.
“I think I’ve always appreciated it, to be honest with you. I don’t think I have ever taken it for granted. I’ve been lucky to be in the playoffs a number of years, but it’s not an automatic thing. I think every opportunity you get to be in there, you have to take advantage of it.”
Crosby initially returned from a concussion that resulted from two collisions in early January 2011 on Nov. 11, scoring two goals and netting two assists that game. The return, however, lasted all of eight games before the symptoms returned. While he was out, a Los Angeles neurological spine specialist that examined Crosby found that he had suffered a neck injury — which has since healed — in addition to the concussion. Experts say that Crosby is at an only slightly elevated risk for another concussion compared to before his troubles.
Malkin’s season-ending injury was much easier to diagnose: a torn ACL suffered in February 2011. As Crosby missed much of this season, Malkin scored 50 goals for the first time of his career on the surgically repaired right knee.
“I never thought I’d score 50 in a season,” said Malkin, who reached the half-century mark against the Flyers in the final regular-season game on Saturday. “You see if you work hard, you get chances. . . . I’m glad we had a great season, but it means nothing if we lose in the first round.”
While the Flyers won four of the six meetings between the two teams, it’s hard to argue — especially with a healthy Crosby — that the Penguins aren’t the deeper of the two teams. Grit, however, could be a determining factor and the Flyers’ physical play has unsettled the Pens at times. That’s not even taking into account how the fans at Consol Energy Center will react to seeing Max Talbot and Jaromir Jagr — two former fan favorites in Pittsburgh — wearing Flyers jerseys in the postseason.
“We’re confident in our group,” Penguins forward Chris Kunitz said. “If we keep to our system and play our game, we won’t land up on our heels. We fall into trouble when we get out of the game and let the other team dictate the pace. It’s going to be a long, hard-fought series.”
Even the coaches have traded barbs, although Penguins coach Dan Bylsma tried to put it in perspective heading into the best-of-7 series.
“In every series and the series coming up, one team is going win four games,” Bylsma said. “There’s going to be a handshake. One side is going to wish the other side luck in the next round. The other side is going to (move) on. We know who we are playing. We respect the opponent. We have a great adversary. There is certainly a storyline going and it’s going to be played out on the ice.”
The Penguins have several players outside of Crosby and Malkin who were part of that 2009 Stanley Cup-winning team, including goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, forwards Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis and defenseman Brooks Orpik.
Still, the eyes of the hockey world will be on Crosby. That’s hardly unusual for a hockey prodigy who has been tracked since his teenage years, especially north of the border.
Maybe in the ensuing weeks it will be again for all the right reasons — like watching one of the game’s elite execute a no-look pass or backhand a puck over the opposing goalie — as worries about his health abate.
His teammates appear to be there already.
“We’re way past that point (of worrying about Crosby),” Kunitz said. “He’s been playing great hockey. He’s been inspirational in the locker room since he’s been back. He’s also been out there and been one of our best offensive guys. He’s our leader on and off the ice. It’s great to have him back.”