Crosby gives hockey world a night to remember

Sidney Crosby needed nearly a year to establish himself as the best hockey player in the world.

Pittsburgh's captain and superstar centerman returned from a 10-month layoff on Monday night and put on a show that die-hard hockey fans will not soon forget.

Just five minutes and 24 seconds into the game, Crosby turned in a vintage goal, as he took a pass in the neutral zone, sprinted between a pair of New York Islander players and beat goaltender Anders Nilsson with a nifty backhand into the upper right corner of the net.

That goal -- Crosby's first since Dec. 28, 2010 -- was reason enough for the home crowd at Consol Energy Center to whip itself into a frenzy, but by the time No. 87 was done, the whole hockey universe (including Philadelphia and Washington) was ready to give Sid the Kid a standing ovation.

In his first game since Jan. 5, Crosby reached the scoresheet four times, adding a second goal and two assists to help lead his Penguins to a 5-0 win over the lowly Isles. The season debut is made all the more amazing considering all of Crosby's offense came in just under 16 minutes of ice time, or about six minutes less than he averaged in his 41 games last season.

"I'll have a great memory of this one for a lot of different reasons," Crosby said after the game. "That was a pretty fun one to be a part of. I'm happy it went well."

Some folks were worried that Crosby would not be the same after suffering such a serious head injury, or at least believed that he would need some time to shake off the rust. Instead, Crosby was able to immediately reap the benefits of his long and difficult road back to the ice.

At just 24 years of age, Crosby's work ethic is already the stuff of legend, and his performance on Monday will forever stand as a testament to Sid's ability to outwork his peers. He is often compared to NBA legend Michael Jordan in that regard, but even MJ struggled to get back to dominance when he returned to basketball after leaving to pursue an ill-fated baseball career.

Of course, the Twitterverse was abuzz with Crosby talk on Monday night and many current NHL players from around the league expressed their amazement at Sid's magnificent season debut. Possibly the best reaction to Crosby's return came from Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick when he asked on Twitter, "How long before Crosby is leading the league in points?"

Quick must've been only half-joking about that, considering Crosby now has an amazing 70 points in his last 42 games, dating back to the start of last season. If Crosby can keep up that pace, the league may need more than a quarter-season jump to keep him from winning a second Art Ross Trophy.

But, Crosby's own teammates were not nearly as surprised to see their captain already in mid-season form. Crosby is obviously blessed with a wealth of natural talent, but time and time again his teammates, coaches and the writers that cover him tell us that what really sets No. 87 apart is his work ethic. Monday night was another perfect opportunity for those folks to sing Crosby's praises.

"For us, watching him every day in practice, even last year when we were in the playoffs and he was skating with us, he was doing amazing things," Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said. "He treated his rehab real seriously and that's what happens when you make the sacrifice. He came back and was 100 percent like he said he was going to be."

Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke added, "It's Sidney Crosby. The guy loves the stage and he loves to play. He's one of the biggest competitors. Not just in hockey, but in everything he does. It's proof of that tonight."

It should be noted that while Crosby added some much-needed excitement to the early stages of a long NHL season, the seriousness of his concussion should cause us to temper our expectations a bit. Judging by his first game back, the Penguins did everything they could to ensure Crosby would be 100 percent when he returned, but there are still so many unknowns when it comes to head injuries.

All we can really do as hockey fans is hope that Crosby will have a long and healthy career, and that he continues to have nights like Monday, when he helped reaffirm what makes hockey so special.