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"Puck Talk With Popchock" - Bylsma Says S.O.S. (Same Old Sid)

By Matt Popchock


As you already know by now, effective immediately, I will no longer be able to check Twitter for the latest on Sidney Crosby's most recent trip to the men's room at Sewickley Hotel.


For those of us masochistic enough to have worked in retail at one time or another, Black Friday, which is five days away, marks the true beginning of the holiday season, though I would argue everyone in town got an early present Sunday afternoon.

Crosby will suit up for the first time since Jan. 5 when the Penguins host the New York Islanders Monday night at 7:00 for what promises to be the most universally scrutinized--and welcomed--event of the young NHL season.

Head coach Dan Bylsma addressed the media just a couple hours after the team, adhering to Bylsma's earlier promise, gave advanced notice its captain is coming back. Accordingly, he plans on configuring his lineup much the way it looked prior to Crosby's catastrophic concussion.

"The plan is for Sidney to skate with Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis," Bylsma said. "That's a line he's had the most experience with on our team, so we'll be starting that way."

Meanwhile, James Neal will remain paired with Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal will center Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, though Bylsma also said Staal could periodically jump on Malkin's line.

In any event, putting Crosby back with Kunitz and Dupuis makes perfect sense. For the first half of the 2010-11 season, leading almost directly up to the Winter Classic, Sid was their pivot while racking up points at a pace that would make the world's greatest "Pac-Man" player stand and applaud.

All kidding aside, watching Crosby, at the time, really was like being transported back to the Eighties. His 25-game point streak did not rival Gretzky's record 51-gamer, nor did it come anywhere close to Lemieux's Herculean 46-game run in '89-'90 (though, appropriately, Sid did finish his rudely interrupted season with 66 points), but in this offensively difficult era for the NHL, watching "Sid the Kid" come into his own last year made me feel like a kid watching Mario in his own prime.

"There's going to be a time until I think he totally feels comfortable, and until he's back at that level. It takes players a few games to get that timing back, and [get used to] the speed of the game," Bylsma said. "But the one thing that's evident in practice is the speed, and the way he plays the game. In practice he's the best player on the ice."

It sounds like his time on that ice will initially be limited in Monday's game. Crosby was just cleared today by UPMC neurologist and concussion expert Dr. Micky Collins, so although one concussion does not make its victim more suspectible to another, as Collins has said before, this stands to reason, especially when you look at how carefully Crosby has been handled by the team to this point.

"When Sidney gets to 12 minutes, he's going to want that 13th," Bylsma smirked. "I don't know exactly what a number would be, but we're certainly not going to be rushing into 20-plus minutes, which was where he was at before. There are certain circumstances under which his minutes could go up...if there are more power plays, or other things that may not be planned. But he'll certainly be watched and monitored, and we'll see what his conditioning level is."

For those worried about whether we'll see Crosby play like his old fearless self right away, if recent practices are any indication, we will. It's gotten to where his teammates have been able to push him as hard as he has pushed himself to heal, hence the increasing anticipation of today's announcement.

"As our players have found out, he's a hard guy to hit, and he's a hard guy to bring down. He's had a fair amount of [contact] the ice a couple times, and into the boards during puck battle situations. He's confident in those areas, and I'm confident you'll see him go to the net hard tomorrow night," Bylsma said.

Still, though we're all exhaling with relief after hearing the big news, it's a breath of fresh air that Trevor Ogilthorpe--uh, I mean, Gillies--has been out of the Islanders' lineup for the past month.

Not that I'm expecting an encore presentation of Wrestlemania on Long Island from Feb. 11, but this team has played with a chip on its shoulder since Sid first sat out, and that newfound intensity and unity has served the Pens well these past ten months.

Neal, after a dreadful start to his tenure in Pittsburgh, is among the league leaders in goals. Staal and Cooke are reborn. The defense, to a man, has played at another level in support of Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson, who, on the whole, have established themselves as one of the most dependable goaltending duos in the NHL.

After an uninspiring road trip in Florida, it would be nice to see the Penguins return home with that intensity. But is there any concern that heightened sense of urgency will diminish now that their franchise player is there again to guide them down the path to another Cup?

"Part of the expectations of the players in that room have come from their expectations of each other. How we play as a team is a big part of how we play, and I know our players are proud of that," Bylsma said. "We've seen [Sid] do some pretty crazy things in practice, but this isn't the first time we've seen him. We do have to engage, we do have to get to our game, and be ready to play like our team can, and that'll be part of the leadership of the guys in the room.

"He said he may need a refresher course when he comes to the rink tomorrow morning,"  his coach quipped.

Refresher course? Allow me...

Just to "refresh" your memory, the Penguins of 2010-11 ended that season with their second-highest point total in franchise history, despite not having Sidney Crosby for half of it. The Penguins of 2011-12 enter the holiday week tied for the best mark in Eastern Conference, despite not having Sidney Crosby. Well, now the Penguins have Sidney Crosby.

As the late Tom Snyder would say, sleep tight, North America.

"Our team has talked about and worked on becoming a team, and not just Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. There are key parts, and key players, and we've tried to play a certain way. I think they believe in that. I think this year, in particular, there's an anticipation that...when we got Malkin back, and got Crosby back...that we can be a real good team.

"Starting tomorrow night, we're going to see that team."


Tune into SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan Monday for more on Crosby's comeback, and for continuing coverage of the Pens, be sure to also check out Casey Shea's "Shea-ved Ice" blog on!

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