PITTSBURGH - Sidney Crosby's return to the Pittsburgh Penguins' lineup Monday night couldn't have gone much better.
He scored a goal on his third shift, just 5:24 into what became a four-point night in a 5-0 demolition of the New York Islanders at the Consol Energy Center.
Crosby had two goals and two assists, went 14-7 on faceoffs and even came away from a couple of solid hits without incident.
The atmosphere was incredible, with the crowd of 18,571 chanting Crosby's name and waving "Welcome Back Sid" placards.
The Penguins had gone 320 days and 61 regular season games without their captain, the result of a concussion that knocked him out of the lineup on Jan. 5.
His comeback drew comparisons to Mario Lemieux's return to the NHL on Dec. 27, 2000.
Were they similar, though? Not really.
Lemieux's exile was self-imposed. Drained after chronic back problems and cancer treatments, Lemieux determined he'd had enough of hockey.
The NHL's refusal to enforce rules against obstruction frustrated him. With plenty of money in the bank, he walked away in the spring of 1997 at the age of 32.
He came back at 35, after sitting out three full seasons and nearly half of another.
Crosby was sidelined with an injury. He knew he'd be back as soon as he was physically able. He trained regularly during his absence. He attended team meetings, traveled with the Penguins whenever possible and stayed current with the game.
Crosby is 24. Barring further injury, he still has a chance to have a long and distinguished career.
Lemieux was re-starting his career for an encore. Crosby was dealing with an interruption.
They're not the same circumstances.
It doesn't matter, though. The main point is that Crosby is not just back, but he looks like he's ready to excel again.
The woeful Islanders offered the perfect chance. They'd won only twice in their previous 13 games, were coming off a 6-0 loss and started a jittery rookie in goal.
Crosby will have tougher nights, probably as soon as this weekend, when the Penguins play in Montreal.
There's a long way to go, but the first step was just about perfect.
Every year at this time, I like to carve out this much space to offer my thanks to those who read these words on a regular basis.
Special thanks to those who follow the blog at the website and take time to E-mail.
Writing is pretty lonely without readers, and I'm thankful that you pay attention.
Have a happy holiday, and watch out for the flying elbows at the mall.
Mehno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org