PITTSBURGH (AP) — One flick of the wrist. One guttural scream. One very simple message to the rest of an equal parts welcoming and wary NHL.
Sidney Crosby is back.
The superstar center capped his return from concussion-like symptoms with two goals and two assists in his season debut as the Pittsburgh Penguins roared by the New York Islanders 5-0 on Monday night.
Unleashing more than 10 months of frustration in 16 energetic minutes, Crosby put to rest all the questions that had popped up during his lengthy comeback.
Can he still skate? Can he take a hit? Can he play at his nearly peerless level? Can he mix it up?
The answer– for the first night anyway — is an emphatic yes.
“I don’t really have good words for it,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “That was a special in a lot of ways.”
For no one more than Crosby, who celebrated his first goal in 328 days in decidedly un-Crosbylike fashion.
After a breathless sprint down the ice in which he weaved through the New York defense and beat rookie Anders Nilsson with a backhand, Crosby raised his arms in triumph and let out a roar punctuated by a hard-to-miss profanity.
He laughed while watching himself on replay and later apologized for his poor choice of words while admitting “I couldn’t hold that in.”
Crosby added assists on goals by Evgeni Malkin and Brooks Orpik and capped his comeback with a second tally, a backhand that fluttered by Nilsson early in the third period to provide the final margin.
Steve Sullivan also scored for the Penguins while Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 29 shots to collect his 21st career shutout, one behind franchise leader Tom Barrasso.
Nilsson, making just his second start of the season, made 31 saves for New York but was no match as Penguins roared to life with their captain back.
An electric Consol Energy Center crowd greeted Crosby with a deafening roar when he skated onto the ice during warm-ups while “Back in the Saddle Again” blared over the speakers.
Fans held placards with “Sid’ on them — a directive from Hall of Famer and team owner Mario Lemieux — while others brought homemade homages to “Sid the Kid,” including one that read “Merry Sid-Mas.”
Crosby’s return gave a late-November game between a perennial contender and an overmatched also-ran a playoff-like feel, and not just because more than 250 press credentials were handed out, four times the usual number.
Throughout his achingly slow rehab the 24-year-old stressed he wouldn’t return until he felt 100 percent and stressed it would be nearly impossible to top Lemieux’s successful return from retirement in 2000, when he notched an assist on his first shift then later added a goal and another helper.
Amazingly, Crosby one-upped his boss.
Displaying the speed that’s made him a national icon in his native Canada and the face of the sport before his 25th birthday, Crosby transformed the Penguins from Cup contender to Cup favorite in less than 6 minutes, or the length of time it took for him to find the back of the net since last December.
Finishing off a backcheck, Crosby streaked up the ice, took a pass from Pascal Dupuis as he crossed the center line and went to work. He worked the puck to his backhand, slipped past New York’s Andrew MacDonald and flipped the puck over Nilsson’s glove.
“I saw for a few seconds they were a little flat-footed,” Crosby said. “I was able to get some good speed built up when I got it. I knew I had a chance to go wide.”
He was just getting started, later helping the Penguins go up 2-0 by feeding Orpik on the point and watching his defenseman rifle a slap shot by Nilsson.
Bylsma said before the game he’d try to monitor Crosby’s minutes, but knew it would be difficult to keep him off the ice.
Crosby played nearly 16 minutes and for the first time in nearly a year, absorbed a hit at game speed. New York’s Travis Hamonic cleanly checked Crosby to the ground during a first-period Pittsburgh power play.
“Did I know who it was? Yeah,” Hamonic said. “I thought it was just an opportunity to be hard on someone and, you know, that’s all it was and just got caught out there battling.”
It was the first real test of Crosby’s comeback, and he popped up immediately to get back in the play as the Penguins — and the rest of the hockey world — exhaled.
Even if Crosby wasn’t exactly thrilled at getting popped.
“I was mad at myself for putting myself in that position,” Crosby said. “(But) I’m glad I kind of got that over with too early on. There’s going to be more hits and probably harder ones.”
He appears ready, which makes his return a “be careful what you wish for” proposition for the rest of the league. The Penguins have been solid without him. During his first night back, they were spectacular.
Crosby earned a secondary assist on Malkin’s power-play goal early in the second and Malkin later provided a highlight-worthy point of his own, threading a saucer pass to Sullivan as Pittsburgh pushed the lead to 4-0.
“I thought we had a decent start, it’s just I think (Crosby’s) goal gave them a big lift and they had some momentum from the power plays and they took it to us early in the second and we couldn’t come out of that,” New York center John Tavares said.
Crosby capped his brilliant debut with a backhand that fluttered by Nilsson in the third, turning the last 15 minutes of the game into a party worthy of late-spring not the week of Thanksgiving.
NOTES: New York defenseman Mark Eaton left the game with a sprained left MCL and did not return. … The announced crowd of 18,571 marked the 219th consecutive sellout. … Pittsburgh’s James Neal did not score in a home game for the first time this season.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)