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.

Bobby Portis relishing his chance as starter

Bobby Portis relishing his chance as starter

A milk carton was a more likely place to find Bobby Portis than on a basketball floor playing big minutes for the majority of his second season.

He could often be found in the locker room before games and listening to the older players talk to the media afterward, trying his best to fight off the frustration and admitted confusion that comes with the regression of not getting playing time.

When Portis did play, he looked nothing like the confident and borderline cocky rookie who often referred to himself in the third person in interviews. He didn't know when he would play, how long he would be out there or even worse, what was expected of him.

The trade of Taj Gibson at the deadline — preceded by the temporary benching of Nikola Mirotic — put Portis back in the spotlight and he's intent on making the most of it during the last 23 games of the regular season.

"It's fun. You know go out there every day just to know that it's another day I'm going to play," Portis said. "That's the biggest thing for me. I feel like that's already a confidence builder right there, just coming into every game knowing that I'm in the rotation. It's great fun to go out there and play."

It's no secret the front office the Bulls want Portis to succeed and not add him to the ledger of some of the first-round disappointments that can be recalled in recent memory.

The trade of Gibson was certainly underlined with the mantra that Portis should play and the way was going to be cleared for Portis, one way or another. Scoring 19 with eight rebounds against the Celtics on national TV right before the All-Star break probably gave Portis enough validation considering he was thrust into the starting lineup at power forward soon after.

"I don't care about nobody judging me," Portis said. "At the end of the day I'm going to play basketball. That's my job. I'm going to go out there and do the things I do well. I feel like sometimes people misconstrue just because you don't play and they can say some things like that. I don't really care about anybody judging me at this point. At the end of the day I'm still going to be Bobby Portis at the end of the day."

Well, clearly, the third person thing hasn't left the second-year forward, but he said he stayed in the gym waiting on his opportunity, even through a quick but confusing stint to Hoffman Estates to the D-League.

"Just being hungry. Humble and hungry," Portis said. "You know one thing I always strive off of is being humble and hungry. That kept me sane. My mom, I talked to her a lot. She kept me grounded. It's kind of tough not playing and going through the season knowing that some games you might play, you might not play. You know it's about waiting your turn, but at the same time you have to keep working."

Being the fifth big in Fred Hoiberg's rotation didn't leave him a lot of room for Portis to get much run or even find a rhythm, and like many others who've found themselves out of the rotation unexpectedly, it was without much of an explanation.

"Nah, I didn't really know what I could do to get minutes," Portis said. "The one thing that I know that I always do is just come in here every day, work as hard as I can, let the dominos fall how they fall. Every day I come in here, just bust my butt for some minutes, but sometimes it wouldn't work."

Now that he has found himself into Hoiberg's good graces, his improving range has allowed both units to play similiarly.

"I think Bobby has done a real nice job," Hoiberg said. "He was a huge part of our win against Boston in our game right before the break. He just goes out and plays with so much energy. What I really like about him right now is he has no hesitation on his shot. He's stepping into his 3 with good rhythm."

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Bears will not use franchise tag on Alshon Jeffery

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Bears will not use franchise tag on Alshon Jeffery

In this episode of the SportsTalk Live Podcast David Haugh (Chicago Tribune), Nick Friedell (ESPNChicago.com) and Danny Parkins (670 The Score) join David Kaplan on the panel.

NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport reports that the Bears will not use the franchise tag on Alshon Jeffery for the second straight year. Is that the right move? And what will Ryan Pace do with all of his team’s cap space?

The Bulls are winning but their new, young point guard doesn’t know his role. Will anything ever change with the Bulls?

That plus Scott Paddock drops by to recapping a thrilling Daytona 500 finish.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below: