Blackhawks

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.

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' overtime loss to Lightning: Missed opportunities and one too many penalties

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' overtime loss to Lightning: Missed opportunities and one too many penalties

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks’ 3-2 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday night:
 
1. One too many penalties.

The Blackhawks flirted with danger in the first period when they handed the Lightning three straight continuous power plays, a four-minute double minor high-sticking penalty from John Hayden and a Jonathan Toews hooking call that resulted in a 5-on-3 opportunity for Tampa Bay for 43 seconds. 

The penalty kill unit that ranked fourth in the league entering the matchup, however, killed off all three of those penalties against the NHL's top-ranked power play, and did so in commanding fashion.

The Blackhawks went 5-for-5 on the penalty kill in regulation, but couldn't stop the sixth one — a questionable slashing call on Nick Schmaltz —  in overtime when Brayden Point buried the winner on a 4-on-3 opportunity.

It was also interesting that Jon Cooper elected to go with four forwards (Nikita Kucherov, Vladislav Namestnikov, Point and Steven Stamkos) and zero defensemen during that man advantage, putting all of his offensive weapons out on the ice. It's something more teams should do in that situation.

2. Patrick Kane gets going.

After scoring just one goal in his previous 10 games, Kane found the back of the net twice in the opening frame against Tampa Bay and stayed hot against a team he historically plays well against. And he nearly netted a hat trick in overtime but couldn't cash in on a breakaway opportunity.

Kane has 20 points (eight goals, 12 assists) in 14 career regular-season games against the Lightning, and extended his point streak to five games. He has three goals and four assists over that stretch.

We wrote about how important it is for the Blackhawks' superstars to get going again with the offensive contributions mainly coming from role players as of late, and Kane getting into a groove is a perfect step in that direction.

3. How about that goaltending battle?

Corey Crawford and Andrei Vasilevskiy showed us exactly why they belong in the Vezina Trophy discussion, and as of this moment, it's hard not to include both of them as finalists. They put on a goaltending clinic, seemingly topping the other as the game went on.

The two teams combined for 71 scoring chances, and Crawford and Vasilevskiy came up big when their teams need them the most.

Crawford finished with 35 saves on 38 shots (.921 save percentage) in the loss while Vasilevskiy stopped 29 of 31 (.935 save percentage), and improved to 15-2-1 on the season. 

4. Missed opportunities.

You couldn't have asked for a better start for the Blackhawks. They scored the first goal 3:49 into the game and the second on the power play at 15:54, killed off three penalties, including a 5-on-3, had 24 shot attempts (13 on goal) compared to the Lightning's 16 attempts (11 on goal) and led in even-strength scoring chances 9-6.

It was a different story the rest of the way.

The Blackhawks took their foot off the gas pedal a bit and let the Lightning back in the game by getting away from what they do best, and that's control the puck. Obviously, you expected the league's best offense to push back and it's certainly not an easy task to keep them off the scoresheet all together. 

But the Blackhawks had their chances to stay in front or retake the lead and just couldn't bury them. Tampa Bay had 50 shot attempts from the second period on while the Blackhawks had only 32, and finished with 44 scoring chances compared to Chicago's 27.

5. Richard Panik in the doghouse?

Joel Quenneville didn't go to his line blender in this one, but he did shorten some leashes. Panik, most notably, had a season-low 12:28 of ice time in the loss and had 15 shifts, which was second-fewest only to Ryan Hartman (13) on the team.

Panik had a prime chance to break a 2-2 tie in the third period but was denied by Vasilevskiy, who made a remarkable left-pad save. Instead, Panik extended his goal drought to 12 games and didn't get a shift in overtime.

He's certainly better and will get his scoring chances when playing on the top line with Toews and Brandon Saad, but the missed opportunities are magnified in tight losses. It doesn't look like a move down in the lineup is coming given the success of Alex DeBrincat, who gives the Blackhawks an offensive weapon on the third line, but perhaps it should be considered.

Bring your own stuffing: Jazz swat Bulls on Thanksgiving Eve

Bring your own stuffing: Jazz swat Bulls on Thanksgiving Eve

On the second (turkey) leg of a back-to-back, the Bulls didn't bring much energy in a 110-80 loss to the Utah Jazz. 

Instead of diving into the nitty-gritty of the uninspiring effort, though, we decided to just serve you up a Thanksgiving meal of highlights. Here are the top blocks from Wednesday's game: 

5. Derrick Favors is no Rudy Gobert -- that we know -- but imitation is the highest form of flattery. 

4. Are Bobby Portis chase down blocks the new LeBron James chase down blocks? Let's not get carried away... yet. We'll chalk it up to just a real nice hustle play by Bobby. 

3 and 2. Speaking of hustle plays... Jonas Jerebko isn't exactly known as a dominant defender. He sure made it hard for the Bulls on what should of been an easy fast-break bucket in the third quarter, though. First, he silenced Kris Dunn's reverse. Then, he met Lauri Markkanen at the rim and sent the rookie packing. The Baby Bulls 2.0 can blame it on fatigue, but they just handed Jerebko a highlight tape for years to come.   

1. In fairness, Jerian Grant had to get up a shot as the quarter was coming to a close. It is as vicious as it looks, though.