PITTSBURGH (AP) — Connor Bedard skated into the faceoff circle, saw one of his idols standing across from him and tried to soak in the moment.
That really was Sidney Crosby within arm's reach. That really was referee Kelly Sutherland welcoming him to the NHL on national television. That really was a sellout crowd pulling cameras out trying to capture the meeting of two generational talents at opposite ends of their careers.
Then the puck dropped, and the instincts that have made the 18-year-old Bedard the NHL's next big thing kicked in.
Playing with a charismatic fearlessness, Bedard dazzled in Chicago's 4-2 comeback win over Crosby and the Penguins on Tuesday night.
The top pick in the 2023 NHL entry draft picked up an assist and fired five shots at Tristan Jarry while playing 21:29, hardly looking intimidated by the stage, the stakes or pretty much anything else.
“I think, for me, it’s just trying to get better every shift, every game,” Bedard said. "I created a bit. There’s obviously things I can get better at. But felt pretty good.”
Looked pretty good, too. Penguins' defenceman Kris Letang gave Bedard a couple of “welcome to the NHL hits," not in an attempt to send a message but because at times it was the only way to keep up with Bedard.
“He’s so good, so shifty,” Letang said. "He’s got great moves. I had to play him hard. He’s really deceptive. You can’t even look at the puck one second, because he’s so fast.”
Chicago trailed 2-0 when Crosby began his 19th season by scoring his 551st career goal, a shot into an open net off a pass from Jake Guentzel 11:56 into the second period.
The Blackhawks roared back behind a goal from Ryan Donato — with a secondary assist from Bedard — in the second period and Cole Guttman’s goal midway through the third.
Jason Dickinson gave Chicago the lead with 4:31 remaining. Nick Foligno’s empty-netter with 1:33 to go sent most of the sellout crowd home.
“I feel like that was a complete game,” Dickinson said. "We played the full 60. We stuck to our game plan. We played a hard game. It’s nice when you get rewarded.”
Petr Mrazek stopped 38 shots for the Blackhawks.
Crosby and Bryan Rust scored for the Penguins, who had their run of 16 consecutive playoff appearances end last spring thanks in part to a late-season pratfall against the Blackhawks. Pittsburgh retooled over the summer, including adding three-time Norris Trophy-winning defenceman Erik Karlsson.
Fireworks, however, were hard to come by for the NHL's oldest team. Jarry made 32 saves but the Penguins let a lead slip away late, a problem that plagued them at times last season.
“First game, I don’t think anybody is firing on all cylinders at this point," Crosby said. "There are certainly some things we can do better, be more detailed defensively.”
Bedard's arrival in the NHL had been anticipated for years, much like Crosby's when the Penguins grabbed him with the top overall selection in 2005, all of 13 days after Bedard was born. His arrival in Chicago has given the beleaguered franchise a much-needed jolt even though there almost certainly will be some growing pains on a team that's missed the playoffs five of the last six seasons as the dynasty that won three Stanley Cups between 2010-15 faded.
Like Crosby, Bedard seems at ease with the attention that has followed him from childhood prodigy to the NHL. He joked during the morning skate that he slept “like a baby." He sprinted onto the ice with fellow Blackhawks rookie Kevin Korchinski during warmups, the two teenagers having the rink to themselves momentarily as is tradition for players making their NHL debuts.
Bedard was fidgety during the national anthem, his legs in constant motion, eager to get a moment he'd been dreaming about since he was a phenom growing up in North Vancouver, B.C.
While he didn't win that opening faceoff — he didn't win many, going just 2-for-13 on draws — once the puck was in motion, Bedard was frequently a blur.
He recorded the first shot of his career just over six minutes in on a one-timer with Chicago on the power play. He kept right on pumping pucks at Jarry, his No. 98 constantly in motion. He was unafraid to fling his 5-foot-10, 185-pound frame into tight spaces, be it the front of the net or the corners.
Bedard seemed to surprise Jarry with a shot from the short side early in the second and collected the first point of his career late in the second period when he dropped a backhand pass to Alex Vlasic, who then bulled his way in close for a shot whose rebound ended up on the stick of Donato to bring the Blackhawks to within 2-1.
Guttman then tied it just past the midway point of the third period with a laser from the slot and Dickinson put the Blackhawks in front to offer a glimpse of the team Chicago hopes it can become on a regular basis, with Bedard at the centre of it all.
“He’s a very mature kid for his age,” Dickinson said. "There’s a ton that’s been put on him. It doesn’t seem to phase him. Doesn’t seem to even hit him.”
Blackhawks: Travel to Boston on Wednesday.
Penguins: Visit longtime Metropolitan Division rival Washington on Friday.
AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/nhl
Will Graves, The Associated Press