PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 21: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his assist on teammate Brooks Orpik's goal in the first period against the New York Islanders during the game on November 21, 2011 at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Crosby hasn't played since January 5th after sustaining a concussion. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
A comparison to Mario Lemieux is the highest honor, but what Crosby did on Monday night deserves even better.
Sidney Crosby's first shift wasn't his best shift.
After sitting out nearly a year due to the aftereffects of a concussion, Sunday's announcement of Crosby's return to action against the New York Islanders on Monday night led to an almost Stanley Cup Finals-esque atmosphere at the Consol Energy Center.
Or, for a better comparison, a vibe within the arena similar to what was felt on December 27, 2000...
But, in that game, Mario Lemieux worked his magic on his very first shift of the night, recording an assist seconds into the game. Crosby's opening shift was more an accomplishment simply because it happened, rather than for what it contained.
The pent-up energy and frustration of months away from the game surged from the Penguins captain as he churned his legs, dashing up and down the ice, like an animal finally released into the open wilderness from his cage. Energetic, and perhaps a little too spastic. The capacity crowd, meanwhile, poured its appreciation upon the ice.
The puck skittered past his stick a time or two, glorious moments of possession where the Crosby of old would've done at least enough to let the crowd know that the spectacular was possible. He went to the bench, and we were satisfied enough that he looked lively, and was playing hockey.
A few minutes passed, Crosby jumped back on the ice. The Penguins gained possession deep in their own zone, Crosby gaining momentum from behind the net to join a rush that defenseman Deryk Engelland had just begun with a crisp breakout pass to Pascal Dupuis.
Near the center line, the oncoming Crosby was hit with a quick pass from his linemate as Jay Pandolfo futilely chased him down the ice. Andrew MacDonald, one of the Islanders' better skating defensemen, squared up to defend the momentum-filled Penguin attacker, but, with disarming simplicity, Crosby lowered a shoulder, put the puck on his backhand and simply skated around MacDonald.
He was now through, one-on-one with rookie goaltender Anders Nilsson, who was making his first start.
It's not hard to imagine what came next: rapturous applause.
It took Crosby 5:24 to get on the score sheet, and that was just the start of his night.
He got better and more confident, seemingly growing in stature as the game progressed. By the end of the first period he was already on two points, having set up Brooks Orpik's second goal of the season. His swagger quickly reappeared.
His skating, fluid. His shot, both forehand and especially backhand, potent. His eye for playmaking, keen. Had he just returned from a long hiatus? Every shot looked makeable, as though he were in the backyard playing a game of HORSE on skates. One-timers and backhanders from the boards, quick, no-look passes to set up prime scoring chances.
It was almost surreal. And that's not hyperbole, either.
Crosby finished the night with four points, equally divided between goals and assists. He lead the Penguins in shots with eight, while only logging 15:54 in ice time, a number held that low due to cautious management by Dan Bylsma for most of the third period.
The reception, the comeback, the performance, it all recalls Lemieux's aforementioned successful return. A raucous crowd, a bewilderingly spectacular performance, a dominating 5-0 score.
Still, Crosby's return deserves better than comparisons to the accomplishments of others, regardless of their pedigree.
He is not Mario Lemieux, for better or worse. He is Sidney Crosby.
Last night, he gave the world a very strong reminder of why he is still the best hockey player in the world.