PITTSBURGH - The fear is gone. The doubt too for that matter. Ditto the hesitation.
A year into his comeback from the concussion-like symptoms that nearly derailed Sidney Crosby's career, the Pittsburgh Penguins superstar is back atop the NHL scoring race thanks to his unparalleled mix of artistry, speed and grit.
It wasn't the avalanche of points - 50 and counting heading into tonight's game against the New York Islanders - that let Crosby's teammates know their captain was back at the top of his considerable powers. No, the proof lay in the tight places around the net where Crosby makes his living better than anyone else.
Arguably, it was Sidney Crosby’s injuries that bumped safety issues to the forefront.
"To play down low in the defensive zone against him is a nightmare," Penguins forward Craig Adams said. "It's a long way back, but I can't imagine a guy playing better than he is right now. You can't get the puck from him."
Perhaps because Crosby doesn't have to worry about getting knocked around so much anymore. Don't get him wrong, the game has never been faster. The players have never been bigger and he's never drawn more attention.
Yet thanks to a series of rule changes made by the league and a shift in attitude by the guys wearing the sweaters, players say the NHL is as safe now as it's perhaps ever been.
"I can only speak to the games we played in, there's been a difference," Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "I think guys are a little bit more conscious, a little more respectful."
In the 2-plus years since Crosby sustained a concussion following a blindside hit from Washington's David Steckel in the 2011 Winter Classic, the league has outlawed shots to the head entirely and given senior vice president of player safety Brendan Shanahan great leeway in handing out punishment for dangerous plays.
Though Crosby says it's still too early to tell whether the steps taken by the league have made any impact on the number of concussions sustained by players, he does see evidence of guys playing more under control.
Adapting can take time. Yet there are success stories. Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke was considered one of the league's dirtiest players two years ago but has cleaned up his act to the point where when he does something wrong, it is almost a shock.
Cooke said he knew he needed to change if he wanted to extend his career. And even players who lack Cooke's pedigree as an enforcer have taken a hard look at how they go about their business.
Adams, a grinder who has spent 12 years in the NHL as an aggressive forechecker, admits there are times he gets frustrated when he skates 200 feet only to have an opposing player intentionally turn his back to Adams to try and invite a penalty. Yet Adams - and most of his brethren - understand the need to hold up instead of following through.
Mistakes will happen. So will concussions. Yet Adams sees a league trying to maintain a portion of its soul while also getting rid of the kind of cheap shots that almost prematurely ended Crosby's career.
"We're avoiding those hits," he said. "I think it's starting to get into the culture that that's not okay."