Sidney Crosby will appear in his 413th National Hockey League game tonight at Consol Energy Center. It might not seem like it, though.
Not to what could be the most-energized crowd in the young arena's history. And certainly not to Mr. Crosby, who has not participated in one since being diagnosed with a concussion Jan. 6.
For that reason, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Sunday that Mr. Crosby, 24, figures to experience the emotions and excitement of a player competing at this level for the first time.
"He's been wanting to play hockey for long time," Mr. Bylsma said.
Mr. Crosby's chance will come in a game against the New York Islanders. Coincidentally, he has earned more points (62) against the Islanders and Philadelphia than any other opponents.
In his six professional seasons -- all with the Penguins, Mr. Crosby has 215 goals and 357 assists for 572 points. In 62 NHL playoff games, he has 30 goals and 52 assists for 82 points. He helped the Penguins win the 2009 Stanley Cup championship, following a runner-up finish the previous year.
Mr. Crosby, who missed the final 41 games of the 2010-11 season and the first 20 this season, received clearance to resume playing Sunday in a meeting with Charles Burke, the Penguins' team physician, and concussion specialist Michael Collins, who has been overseeing his treatment.
Mr. Crosby did not speak publicly Sunday, a day on which the Penguins did not practice, but is scheduled to meet with the media after the Penguins' game-day skate this morning.
And there will be plenty of media -- print, broadcast and digital -- waiting for him.
Not long after word got out that Mr. Crosby will play tonight, the Versus network announced it will televise the Penguins-Islanders game rather than the Boston-Montreal game as originally scheduled. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. announced it will televise the Penguins game, too.
Mr. Crosby had a 10-point lead in the NHL scoring race at the time his injury was diagnosed. He appeared to be headed for his second league scoring championship and possibly a second Most Valuable Player award.
When -- or whether -- he will be able to return to the level at which he was playing when he got his concussion is impossible to say, but teammates have marveled at the way he has performed in practices since being cleared to receive contact Oct. 13.
"You watch him in practice, and he hasn't lost a step out there," goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. "The first game he comes back, he'll be one of the best players in the league, still. Right away."
Left winger Matt Cooke echoed that sentiment, and said that he did not believe Mr. Crosby would return if he did not feel he could perform to his usual standards.
"You see him out there in practice every day," Mr. Cooke said. "He's one of the best, if not the best, players every day on the ice.
"That's part of the plan, to make sure he's at the level where he expects himself to be, especially this far into a season."
Mr. Bylsma said he plans to use Mr. Crosby on a line with wingers Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, and that he does not expect Mr. Crosby to take on his customary workload of 20-plus minutes of ice time per game immediately.
The coach also acknowledged that Mr. Crosby, who will use the same protective equipment he has since the start of training camp in September, likely would not be receptive to the idea of severely restricted playing time.
"When you get [elite players] in a game, they always want to go out for one more shift," he said. "We may have to tie him to the bench a little bit."
Precisely when Mr. Crosby got his concussion never has been determined.
Most observers believe it stems from a nasty blow to the head Mr. Crosby took Jan. 1 from then-Washington Capitals center David Steckel in the Winter Classic at Heinz Field.
Mr. Crosby, however, insisted over the next few days that he had experienced no concussion symptoms, and he was in the lineup for the Penguins' next game, Jan. 5 against Tampa Bay. That night, Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman checked him from behind, knocking Mr. Crosby's head off the glass.
Mr. Crosby traveled with the Penguins to Montreal after that game, but returned to Pittsburgh the next day and promptly was diagnosed with a concussion.
The initial word from Mr. Bylsma was that the concussion was "mild" and that Mr. Crosby figured to be out for "about a week," but that prognosis clearly did not hold up.
He was not cleared for off-ice workouts until Jan. 29, and did not skate for the first time until March 14. He was shut down for the balance of the 2010-11 season April 17 and was not on the ice again until mid-July.
Mr. Crosby joined the Penguins for the start of training camp in September but did not receive approval for contact until about a month later.
Now, he is ready to take the final step in his recovery, to resume the career interrupted so abruptly, so violently, nearly 11 months ago.
"Everyone will be pretty excited to see him play, and I'm sure he will be, too," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
"If he does what he does in practice, he'll be just fine. We were laughing [Saturday] at a couple of things he did [in a game-day skate]. Just, you know, 'Can't wait to see that in a game.' "
Tonight, Mr. Crosby's teammates -- and the rest of the hockey world -- finally will get that opportunity.
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published November 21, 2011 5:00 AM