Hockey's biggest star returns to ice Monday night

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Hockey's biggest star returns to ice Monday night

From Comcast SportsNet

PITTSBURGH, Pa. - The great wait is finally over for Sidney Crosby.

Crosby, the NHL's biggest name but an idled star for more than 10 months due to a serious concussion, will return to the Pittsburgh Penguins' lineup Monday night against the New York Islanders.

It was difficult Sunday to tell who was happier Crosby, who finally returns to the sport he was dominating at this time a year ago, the first-place Penguins themselves or the NHL's hierarchy, which has long awaited the comeback of its marquee talent.

This will likely be the NHL's most-anticipated comeback game since former Penguins star Mario Lemieux ended his 3 12-season retirement by playing against the Maple Leafs on Dec. 27, 2000.

"He's excited. He's anxious. He's been wanting to play hockey for a long time," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said after talking with Crosby, who was cleared Sunday to play by his doctors. "Now that he is scheduled to play, the anticipation is coming to the forefront and he's excited."

He's not the only one.

Crosby's return figures to give a major lift to the Penguins, who, even without their best player, are 11-6-3 and are tied with Philadelphia for the Eastern Conference lead. Monday's game will be only the third in the last two seasons that the Penguins will have their top three centres Crosby, former scoring champion Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal on the ice together.

No doubt the NHL is thrilled to get back its biggest attraction, a player who is only 24 yet one who already owns an MVP award, a scoring championship, a Stanley Cup victory and an Olympic gold medal.

"We're certainly going to enjoy No. 87 out there," Bylsma said.

Especially since there has been so much speculation and second guessing about when Crosby would play for the first time since Jan. 5, when a second hard hit in as many games resulted in the first concussion of his career.

The Penguins initially thought he would be back last season but Crosby never got close to doing so. He didn't practise again until March 31, and he was shut down for good in mid-April once concussion-related symptoms that included a sensitivity to bright light and loud noises, dizziness and fatigue returned.

Those symptoms persisted whenever he attempted to ratchet up his training regimen during the summer and, according to Crosby, they didn't disappear until shortly before training camp began Sept. 17.

Since then, the Penguins and Crosby's medical team have taken a slow, patient approach, trying to make sure that Crosby was symptom-free before he played again.

The Crosby-is-back speculation increased Nov. 7, when he refused to rule out playing later that week. Two days before, he unexpectedly left the Penguins in Los Angeles to return to Pittsburgh and meet with his doctors.

During the last two weeks, Crosby has declined to speak to reporters, another sign that his return appeared to be near.

Both Crosby and the Penguins insisted that no date or opponent was targeted once he was cleared by doctors, including his concussion specialists, he would return immediately.

His own teammates, at least publicly, kept insisting they had no idea when he would be back, saying they didn't want to pester him with questions about his health and playing status.

"Everybody knows how badly he wants to play," Penguins forward Matt Cooke said.

If Crosby had a bad practice in the two months, he was restricted to working out with his teammates, no one said so. He was frequently dazzling, showing off the moves, creativity and intensity that helped him accumulate 32 goals and 66 points in 41 games last season, putting him on pace for the highest-scoring season by an NHL player since Lemieux in 1995-96.

"We've seen him do some pretty crazy things, and we've seen him at a high pace," Bylsma said.

The Penguins, in a testament to their depth and resiliency, have gone 34-19-8 without Crosby the last two seasons. Even after losing to Tampa Bay and Florida on a two-game Florida road trip that ended Saturday, they are 11-6-3 and are tied with the Flyers for the Atlantic Division lead.

Now, the Penguins' goal is to be even better now that their signature star is back. Crosby was always certain he would be back shortly before training camp began he scoffed at rumours that the concussion threatened his career.

"We don't want to be in a situation where we just stand around and get caught up watching Sidney Crosby play," Bylsma said. "We have to engage and get to our game and be ready to play like our team can."

For now, Bylsma likely will reduce Crosby's playing time, cutting into his usual 20-plus minutes. According to his coach, Crosby will need some time to regain his game legs and get back to game speed.

Even if teammates such as James Neal and Steve Sullivan predict it won't take long.

"You get those guys in a game, they always want to go out one more shift," Bylsma said. "So we may have to tie him to the bench a bit."

What everyone across the NHL will be waiting to see is how Crosby absorbs hits, especially the first one that is levelled near his head. Brendan Shanahan, the new vice president for player safety, is intent on reducing the number of head shots, but even he knows they cannot be eliminated completely.

Since being cleared Oct. 13 for contact during practice, Crosby has absorbed some hitting during practice, but it has not approximated what occurs during a game.

Still, as Bylsma said, "He's a hard guy to hit. He's a hard guy to go after and hit hard. He's had a fair amount of that (hitting) and I know he's confident in those areas."

Bylsma initially plans on playing Crosby on a line with familiar linemates Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. But Crosby also has practised at times with Malkin and with James Neal, the Penguins' top goal scorer to date with 12 goals.

"Sometimes Game 1 is on adrenaline, and it takes a few games for players to get that timing back, the speed of the game," Bylsma said. "It's easy to see in practice that he's the best player on the ice with his speed and the way he plays the game. He'll bring that to the game (Monday)."

And, along with it, the hopes and expectations of a team, a city and also a league that hasn't quite been the same since Crosby was sidelined by shots from the Capitals' David Steckel on Jan. 1 and the Lightning's Victor Hedman on Jan. 5.

After Monday, Crosby will continue his comeback at home Wednesday against the Blues and Friday against the Senators. His first road game and his first back in his native Canada will be Saturday night in Montreal.

White Sox: Jose Abreu hits 100th career home run

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AP

White Sox: Jose Abreu hits 100th career home run

PHOENIX — Jose Abreu became the third Cuban player to hit 100 home runs for the White Sox when he hit blasted one Tuesday night.

The White Sox first baseman reached the left field seats with a 386-foot drive in the eighth inning off Arizona’s Jorge De La Rosa. The homer was the ninth hit by Abreu this season in 184 plate appearances.

Minnie Minoso hit 135 home runs for the White Sox and Alexei Ramirez had 109.

Abreu is on pace to hit 33 homers this season. He burst onto the season and hit 36 home runs en route to winning the American League rookie of the year award in 2014. Abreu’s homer total dropped to 30 in 2015 and dipped to 25 last season.

[VIVID SEATS: Get your White Sox tickets here]

All nine of Abreu’s homers have come away from Guaranteed Rate Field this season. The White Sox have only played 16 games at home. Prior to 2017, Abreu had homered 46 times at home and 45 on the road.

Abreu’s 100th homer had an exit velocity of 104 mph off the bat and a launch angle of 40 degrees. 

Joe Maddon explains his ‘defensive foot fetish’ and what Cubs need to see from Ian Happ in center field

Joe Maddon explains his ‘defensive foot fetish’ and what Cubs need to see from Ian Happ in center field

Joe Maddon went Full Larry David while trying to explain what the Cubs need to see from Ian Happ in center field.

“I’m into feet, man,” Maddon said. “I just like good feet. I don’t have a foot fetish, other than defense. I have a defensive foot fetish. I admit to it.” 

And with that, Maddon got up from his chair and walked out of the Wrigley Field interview room after Tuesday night’s 4-1 win over the San Francisco Giants, saying: “You can’t top that.” The only thing missing for the Cubs manager in that moment was the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” theme music.

Maddon gave credit to bench coach Dave Martinez and the team’s scouting reports for Happ’s sliding catch, which took a leadoff hit away from Brandon Belt in the seventh inning of Jon Lester’s complete-game masterpiece.     

“The guy’s really confident,” Maddon said. “Now I’ve seen some things we need to work on fundamentally out there. And I’ve already talked to Davey about it. And I know Happer’s going to work on that to make it even better. But he was positioned well, I thought, by our guys. He was in the right spots.”

If Happ needs work on reading swings and running routes, remember that the Cubs drafted and developed him as an infielder/outfielder with Maddon’s versatility ideals in mind. Actually, the Cubs went offense first with the ninth overall pick in 2015, fast-tracking a switch-hitter who needed only 26 games with Triple-A Iowa.       

While Happ didn’t exactly appreciate or fully understand where the knocks on his defensive game came from out of the University of Cincinnati, he will be in the lineup when he puts up a .323 average and a 1.126 OPS through his first nine games with the Cubs.    

“Just saw a couple little things I would like to see him address and get better with,” Maddon said. “Again, I’m being nitpicky right now, because I want him to be really good at this. His arm’s fabulous. He throws really well. Yeah, I mean, he could be really good out there.”