The Penguins had realized for a while that Sidney Crosby was getting close to returning to their lineup.
But even coach Dan Bylsma didn't know until Sunday that Crosby would be in uniform when his team faces the New York Islanders tonight at 7:08 at Consol Energy Center.
"My wife gave away the tickets to this game two days ago," Bylsma said today, "so my family doesn't have tickets to tonight's game."
More than 18,000 people do, however, and it figures to be the most energized atmosphere in the brief history of the building.
"It should be a pretty amazing atmosphere," Crosby said. "I'm looking forward to it."
Tonight's game will be Crosby's first since he was diagnosed with a concussion Jan. 6.
He missed 61 regular-season games and seven more in the playoffs while recovering from the most serious injury of his career.
"Now is the easy part," Crosby said today. "Now, you just have to play."
He acknowledged being a bit nervous about returning, but suggested that he should be able to settle in once he gets into the flow of the game.
"Anyone who's gone through this would be lying if they said they're not a little anxious to get those first couple of hits in, whether it's giving them or taking them," Crosby said. "After that, things should be pretty normal."
Crosby, it turns out, isn't the only injured player the Penguins will get back this evening.
Defenseman Zbynek Michalek, who has been out the past 10 games because of a broken finger sustained when he blocked a shot.
The headliner, though, will be Crosby.
His return is the reason TV networks in both the U.S. and Canada will broadcast tonight's game.
The reason print media members who descended on town.
The reason Consol Energy Center should be more charged that it has been for any previous game in the building, regular season or playoffs.
"It's going to be great," Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said. "Obviously, a lot of people missed him. It's an exciting day for our team."
Enthusiasm and adrenaline aside, the reality is that Crosby hasn't played in a game since Jan. 5, which invites questions about how effective he can be in the short term.
"Do I expect to be where I was in January?" Crosby said. "Probably not. But I expect to hopefully contribute."
His teammates, though, seem far more positive about what to expect in his comeback game.
"I think he'll be back in fine form tonight," right winger Tyler Kennedy said. "You'll see. He'll be good tonight."
Getting Crosby back obviously is a huge plus for the Penguins, but keeping their focus tonight could be a challenge because of all the attention his return has generated. Letang, though, believes the Penguins will benefit from the crowd reaction Crosby stepping onto the ice will generate.
"I think everybody's excited for him," he said. "I think it's going to pump up all the guys. It's just positive energy for us."
Because this is his first game in nearly 11 months, Crosby will be playing with a number of teammates for the first time. That group includes forwards Steve Sullivan and James Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen.
"It's something new," Niskanen said. "For me, especially. We're really excited to have him back.
"I don't view this as a distraction. I'm just really excited that he's healthy and back playing."
First Published November 21, 2011 6:00 PM