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.

Best of the rest: QB, DL among Bears' targets on Day 2

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Best of the rest: QB, DL among Bears' targets on Day 2

Leftovers sometimes get a bad name. Pizza, chili, fine wine -- sometimes they're better the second day or at least after a little time to reach taste peaks. Some NFL draft picks may  be better if allowed to age overnight. The Bears, sitting at No. 10 in the second round, hope that's the case.

The selection of Georgia’s Leonard Floyd addressed Need No. 1 for the Bears: a pass rusher to get them off the field with third-down plays. But Needs No. 2-through-whatever remain to be filled with best-available’s from a draft board already picked over in some key areas.

The Bears had the chance to trade up into the first round from their spot at No. 10 in the second, but chose to keep their powder dry for day two’s second and third rounds.

  • Quarterback

Pace uncharacteristically expressed positives about the 2016 quarterback draft class: “It really is a good class of quarterbacks, and they’re all unique and they’re all a little different,” he said. “I think some guys are going to have different perspectives of different flavors, but it’s a good class. It breaks after a certain point and then there are some middle round guys that are intriguing for different reasons. It’s just up to us to analyze that and rank that correctly and I think we have.”

The Bears had private meetings with 10 different quarterbacks this offseason, indicating more than a casual interest in finding the right backup for Jay Cutler.

Already gone: Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Paxton Lynch

Best remaining: Connor Cook, Michigan State; Kevin Hogan, Stanford; Dak Presott, Mississippi State.

  • Defensive line

The defensive tackle position is rated one of the best in draft history. The Bears used a No. 2 last year and landed starting nose tackle Eddie Goldman and hope to have Ego Ferguson (a 2014 No. 2) back from knee surgery to go on the other side of Goldman in the base 3-4. But the defense was one of the NFL’s poorest at stopping the run and even with new, veteran inside linebackers, the foundation is the front.

Already gone: Joey Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Sheldon Rankins, Shaq Lawson, Kenny Clark, Robert Nkemdiche, Vernon Butler.

Best remaining: A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama; Andrew Billings, Mississippi; Jarran Reed, Alabama.

  • Tight end

Pace described the tight-end class as just “OK,” and the Bears lost one of the NFL’s best in trading away Martellus Bennett. One the plus side: No team dipped into the shallow talent pool in the first round.

Already gone: None.

Best remaining: Hunter Henry, Arkansas; Austin Hooper, Stanford; Nick Vannett, Ohio State.

  • Defensive back

The Bears had myriad options to select a cornerback or safety with their first-round pick but addressed the need for pass rush instead. But seven teams went for the back-end of the defense first within the first 25 picks of the first round.

Already gone: Jalen Ramsey, Eli Apple, Vernon Hargreaves, Karl Joseph, Keanu Neal, William Jackson, Artic Burns.

Best remaining: Vonn Bell, Ohio State; MacKensie Alexander, Clemson; Maurice Canady, Virginia.

  • Other notables in Bears’ need areas

Cody Whitehair, G, Kansas State

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama

Bears' Leonard Floyd: 'Comfortable doing...anything' in 3-4 scheme

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Bears' Leonard Floyd: 'Comfortable doing...anything' in 3-4 scheme

Leonard Floyd was a jack of all trades as a defensive standout at Georgia. Those types of players too often don’t do any single thing well enough to make any mark at the NFL level. But the Bears, and Floyd, think he can in fact be a master of all.

“I played outside, played inside,” said Floyd on Thursday night. “And I also did a lot of three-point stance as well as two, so I’m pretty comfortable doing pretty much anything in the 3-4 scheme.”

The Bears plan to use him as an outside linebacker, rushing the passer for a team that had no rushman with more than Lamarr Houston’s eight sacks. What that bodes for Houston’s future in Chicago, as well as that of outside linebacker Willie Young, who playfully refused to use the “L” word (“linebacker”) when talking about himself, is cloudy at best.

[RELATED: How the Bears landed on Georgia's Leonard Floyd]

Neither Houston nor Young was particularly effective in pass defense but “I’m pretty good in coverage, did a lot in college, covered the tight end,” said Floyd, who was credited with three passes defensed, same as Young, in 2015. “I feel like I’ll be fine at the next level.”

The Bears have no plans to set a heavier weight target beyond the 240’s that Floyd checked in at during the NFL Scouting Combine.

“The last thing you want to do is bulk this guy up and then you’re taking away what he does best,” said Bears GM Ryan Pace. “You see some guys put on too much weight too fast and they look stiff and they lose some of that twitch that makes them a special player. We’ve got to do it the right way. I’ve got a lot of confidence in our strength and conditioning coaches, our sports science director Jen Gibson, to get Leonard at an optimal playing weight to maximize his talent.”

But “I definitely want to add more mass to my body,” Floyd said. “I know Chicago has some of the best coaches in the league, they’re going to coach me up hard, and I’m excited to learn...

“I want to add more power to my pass-rush to go with my speed. That’s a thing I need to learn and pick up in the league.”

Buckeyes nearly match NFL Draft record with five first-round selections

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Buckeyes nearly match NFL Draft record with five first-round selections

Many expected a record-breaking night for Ohio State on Thursday, but the Buckeyes will have to settle for only five first-round selections in this year's NFL Draft.

In what was a phenomenal showing for Urban Meyer's program, five Buckeyes heard their names called during the first 20 picks in Thursday night's first round.

Ohio State came one selection away from matching the NFL Draft record of six players from one school being chosen in the first round, a feat accomplished by Miami, which saw six players taken in the first round in 2004.

Defensive end Joey Bosa got things started when he was selected by the San Diego Chargers with the third pick.

Teammate Ezekiel Elliott immediately followed when the Dallas Cowboys used the No. 4 pick on the star running back.

Cornerback Eli Apple made it three Buckeyes selected in the top 10 when the New York Giants took him at No. 10, instantly earning the new nickname of Eli "Big" Apple.

Offensive lineman Taylor Decker was chosen by the Tennessee Titans six picks later at No. 16, and linebacker Darron Lee rounded it out at five in the top 20 when he was picked by the New York Jets at No. 20.

It was the fourth time Ohio State has had five players picked in the first round of the NFL Draft.

The Buckeyes still have a shot at a modern draft record. Ohio State actually holds the record for the most players chosen in a single draft, with 14 players picked in 2004. As Cleveland.com's Bill Landis explained earlier this month, the all-time record is 17, accomplished by the Texas Longhorns in 1984, though that draft had 12 rounds. The 14 players sent to the draft by Ohio State in 2004 is a record under the current seven-round format.

Days 2 and 3 still figure to feature a lot of big-name Buckeyes. Top Ohio State talent not picked in the first round includes Vonn Bell, Cardale Jones, Braxton Miller, Joshua Perry, Tyvis Powell, Michael Thomas and Adolphus Washington.