Sidney Crosby will practise starting Saturday at a higher pace, with considerably more exertion, than at any point since the Penguins star was sidelined with a concussion in January.
What remains uncertain is when Pittsburgh's captain will be cleared by doctors to absorb contact and to scrimmage with his teammates — a necessary step before he can play in games.
Even as hundreds of fans were lining up outside Consol Energy Center on Friday to buy single-game tickets for contests they hope will feature Crosby, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said no one can make a reasonable guess as to when No. 87 will be game-ready.
“There's not a realistic expectation, no prediction, no idea of a prediction,” Bylsma said. “It's not really something we talk about in terms of can we put a prediction on it or can we put a timeline on it.”
The white helmet that Crosby wore during an informal team workout was a tipoff that this won't be training camp as normal for him; it signified that he can't be targeted for contact. The rest of his teammates wore black helmets.
“I think camp will be a pretty good indication (of where he is),” Crosby said. “It's going to be intense. Even without contact, it will be a pretty good pace.”
Among the interested spectators watching Crosby and his teammates, including the now-healed Evgeni Malkin, was Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux. Malkin is wearing a protective brace on his right knee after tearing two ligaments in February, but the 2008-09 NHL scoring champion otherwise appears to be fully recovered.
For now, Crosby plans to push himself during practice — the post-concussion symptoms that bothered him for months have mostly dissipated, he said — and talk regularly with his doctors about how he feels.
If Crosby advances through camp without further complications, he will be that much closer to game-ready. Should his headaches and other concussion-related issues return, then it will be a setback similar to that which caused him to stop practising during the Penguins' brief playoff run last spring.
“I'm not sure what the practice plans are (past Saturday),” Crosby said. “That's something I'll have to talk with the coach about and see. ... I'll just have to see what makes sense for me, as far as our practices and things like that go and what the best thing is to do there.”
However, the Penguins view it as a much-awaited step forward that Crosby is experiencing far fewer symptoms, a change from only a few weeks ago when he was forced to adjust his off-season training schedule due to concussion-related headaches.
Crosby said he is looking forward to camp, even if he has never started one with a medical problem.
“As challenging as it is, as tough as it is, that's why you play the game,” Crosby said. “I'm happy to be a part of it, but I know I also have some work to do. So I'm kind of keeping all of those things in mind. I'm just excited to get going.”
The Penguins didn't exactly collapse last season after losing Crosby and Malkin to injury. They finished 49-25-8 for 106 points — the second most in their 45-season history — while going 23-13-5 without Crosby and 15-10-4 without both Crosby and Malkin.
However, few NHL teams could absorb the loss of two recent scoring champions and not sustain a major reduction in production. The Penguins all but shut down offensively while squandering a 3-1 series lead and losing a seven-game opening round to Tampa Bay.
The final, futile game, a 1-0 loss in Game 7 at home, reminded them of how much better they are with Crosby. So did a power play that was only 1 for 35 during the series.
“Obviously we miss him, he's the best player in the world and he's an integral part of this team,” said Penguins defenceman Ben Lovejoy. “But we do know that we can play without him and, heaven forbid that we have to, we'll be ready.”
During a Sept. 7 news conference, Crosby said at the time that his symptoms occurred when he exerted himself at about 90 per cent of his normal rate.
He would not speculate Friday at what level he is currently reaching exertion-wise, but he said this is the best he has felt since he absorbed hard hits in successive games Jan. 1 and 5. He hasn't played since.
“I'm pretty happy with the way things have gone this past week or so. (My) exertion has been pretty high,” Crosby said.
Crosby acknowledged becoming a bit frustrated during the summer, when there was considerable media speculation concerning his status. He did not speak to reporters for about four months, which helped touch off rumours — some accurate, some not — about his recovery.
“You don't have answers to questions sometimes. With that, there's speculation and there's things that are made up sometimes,” Crosby said. “I guess having to answer for those things are probably more frustrating than anything.”
For now, Bylsma is glad that the Penguins' key player is practising, even in a somewhat limited role.
“I think he's doing well, doing better and when you see him on the ice participating, you're going to see a guy who looks a lot like Sidney Crosby looks on the ice,” Bylsma said. “He's a talented player and you can see it when he steps on the ice. That's a positive thing.”