PITTSBURGH (AP) — Sidney Crosby never doubted he'd play hockey again. Never wavered as the months passed and his concussion-like symptoms stuck around. Never wondered if maybe he'd be better off hanging up his skates before his 25th birthday rather than risk the type of injury that jeopardizes more than a career.
There's no healing from the kind of shots Crosby took in back-to-back games last January. There's only dealing with a new normal.
Crosby spent nearly a year methodically, painstakingly going through the checklist, enduring test after test and blocking out rumor after rumor that he was done.
Sitting in his locker on Monday morning, the start of his seventh season finally at hand, the 24-year-old smiled in a way he hadn't in a long, long time.
"I think now's the easy part, now you get to play," Crosby said before the Penguins took on the New York Islanders, his first game since Jan. 5.
"When you're getting ready, that's the tough part, practicing and going through each of those steps, trying to get through each stage. That's really all the hard work. Now you've just got to go out and do it."
How, exactly, he'll do it remains to be seen.
Though Crosby has been cleared for contact since Oct. 13, he understands there's a major difference between hitting in practice and hitting in a game.
How will he react? Even he's not sure.
"I think that anyone who has gone through this that would be lying if they said they weren't anxious to get those first couple hits in, whether it's giving it or taking it," Crosby said. "After that it's back to normal."
The Penguins — and hockey — hopes.
Crosby's return produces the kind of buzz normally reserved for a Stanley Cup final. The team issued more than 250 media credentials — about four times the usual number for a late-November game — and upper concourse seats were being scalped for $275 two hours before the puck dropped.
Though Pittsburgh has gotten along just fine this season without its captain, entering Monday night tied with Philadelphia atop the Atlantic Division, they understand things change the moment Crosby's iconic No. 87 slides off the bench and onto the ice.
In the span of a day, the Penguins went from Cup contenders to Cup favorites.
"With or without Sid we wanted to win every night and we had a chance to win every night," center Jordan Staal said. "Obviously it's going to be different with him going back and everyone fitting in and having the pieces together ... we know what we have here."
Even if they're not quite certain how it's going to look, not even to coach Dan Bylsma.
Though the Penguins have upgraded the offense since Crosby went out last January, trading for James Neal and signing Steve Sullivan, Crosby was paired with Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz in his return because of a certain comfort level obtained through years of playing together.
"You just hope you don't mess up for him," Kunitz joked.
Crosby, as is his way, figures it's the other way around. He downplayed comparisons to Mario Lemieux's return from cancer in 2000, when the Hall of Famer and current team owner notched an assist on his first shift then later scored a goal as the Penguins won 5-0.
"He set the standard pretty high for first shifts on comebacks and stuff," Crosby said. "It's pretty hard to match that."
The Penguins don't need him to be Lemieux, they don't even need him to be the player he was last January, when he led the league in goals and points before taking shots against Washington in the Winter Classic and Tampa Bay four days later.
Then again, his teammates have seen enough since training camp began to think the road back to spectacular play for Crosby is pretty short.
"It's not going to be easy but who knows, he can make it look easy," Staal said. "You can't really do it unless you go through it, but he's talented enough that he can do some great things."
And do them in bunches. Crosby was on his way to capturing his second MVP award when he was injured.
It all changed on Jan. 6 when he was diagnosed with concussion-like symptoms that he later described as "fogginess."
He unwittingly became a case study for the effects of head shots on the game and led the NHL to crack down on such plays.
If it helps make the sport he loves safer, Crosby is all for it. That's not why he came back, however. He wanted to play, not make a statement.
"I've been working hard the last couple months to make sure when it's time to come back, I'm ready," Crosby said. "Do I expect to be where I was in January last year? Probably not, but I expect to contribute."
Even if his teammates and the entire hockey world will hold their breath the first time he gets knocked around.
"That's just normal to be like that," Neal said. "The first hit is always like that. Hopefully he's good to go and I'm sure he will be. He's so quick and so fast and agile it's tough to hit him."
Yet Crosby knows he will get hit. He welcomes it. He doesn't want to get treated as if he's in bubble wrap. He just wants to get after it.
"It's a relief to be back but it's not time to start gliding now," Crosby said. "It's time to get going."