Finally, the rest of the NHL is feeling Sidney Crosby's pain.
The pain from the concussion-like symptoms that ruined his 2010-11 season when he was on his way to putting up historic numbers.
The pain from the neck injury that went a long way to limiting him to 22 games in 2011-12.
The pain from the lockout that went on and on this season and delayed his return to the ice, practically driving him out of his mind because he had worked so maniacally to be ready to play hockey.
Even the pain from his mangled nose, which took a puck square in the game Tuesday night against the New York Islanders and left him dripping blood during the game, through the night and into the next day.
"I got six stitches in my nostril," Crosby said. "I don't even know how they got them in there. It wasn't pleasant."
That's a lot of pain for the rest of the NHL to feel.
It's beginning to hurt like hell.
The Washington Capitals barely had enough energy Thursday night to crawl out of Consol Energy Center after Crosby and the Penguins wasted them, 5-2. Crosby's cross-ice pass to Evgeni Malkin led to a power-play goal at 6:59 of the second period, tied the score, 1-1, and knocked the Capitals back. Crosby's drop pass to Pascal Dupuis set up the go-ahead second goal at 12:49 of the second and knocked the Capitals down. Crosby's goal with 21.2 seconds left in the second completed a five-goal period for the Penguins and knocked the Capitals out.
This was Crosby at his best. His three-point night easily could have been a five-point night. Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby, who replaced starter Michal Neuvirth after Dupuis' goal, robbed James Neal after a fabulous pass from Crosby. Holtby then made a strong stick save in the crease to deny Crosby a goal moments before Crosby scored on the power play by swatting the rebound of a Malkin shot out of the air and into the Capitals net. It was the same sort of swing Crosby used to hit a baseball over the wall during batting practice at PNC Park a few years ago. It was Andrew McCutchen-like.
Crosby has been the chief catalyst of the Penguins' five-game winning streak with two goals, nine assists. It took him awhile to get started this season, at least by his otherworldly standards. He had just three goals and three assists as the team split its first six games. But, suddenly, he is playing spectacular hockey. He is, again, the best player in the world.
It was enough for an inquiring mind to wonder if Crosby believes he is playing as well as he was before taking blind-side hits from the Capitals' David Steckel and Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman in that fateful first week of 2011. He was on his way to winning the NHL scoring championship and Most Valuable Player award when the hits shut him down. He had 32 goals and 34 assists for 66 points in 41 games, a 1.61 points-per-game average. That was Mario Lemieux-like.
"Maybe, yeah, maybe," Crosby said when asked if he's back to that point, quickly warming to the idea. "The game definitely seems like it's speeded up for me. We're playing a really fast game. I'm feeling pretty comfortable."
Thoughts about this kind of night kept Crosby going during his long rehabs and the seemingly endless lockout. He loves his sport, probably more than any Pittsburgh athlete ever did. He lives for games like this. They are especially sweet when they come against the Capitals and Alexander Ovechkin, who once was his rival as hockey's best player but is no more.
"Definitely," Crosby said when asked if he imagined three-point games and big wins during the lockout. "You're sitting there, missing hockey. There are no games to play. Those thoughts keep you going. Being at home. In front of your fans. Great energy in the building. The puck going in the net. Smiles on everyone's faces ... "
Crosby has climbed near the top of the NHL scoring list. The Penguins have the most points in the Eastern Conference. He seems headed toward the scoring title and the MVP award.
No, Crosby said, he isn't worried about getting blind-sided again. He said he is past those fears. He said he has no worries about a big hit ending his season or even his career.
"Not at all. It's not something we can really control. You get hurt when you hesitate out there. You're going to get hit. Everyone gets hit. But you know it's a part of playing this game. You don't worry about it. I don't worry about it. You just play."
That's Crosby's plan. Keep playing. Keep making great hockey plays. Keep helping the Penguins win games.
And, yes, one more thing ...
Keep dishing out pain to the opponents.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published February 8, 2013 5:00 AM