Sidney Crosby took a small step forward in his comeback to the Pittsburgh Penguins' lineup Tuesday. First the team's medical staff cleared him for contact. Then he practised with the team. Afterward he even made a joke or two about how much his teammates enjoyed the chance to put the body on their captain.
"As soon as they knew I could get hit, I was getting a lot of bumps out there," Crosby said in an audio on the team's website. "The lineup was a dangerous place to be today. It was fun to be out there. Hopefully, it's a regular occurrence."
"I think a few people enjoyed bumping into him today," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said with a twinkle. "We had a couple of faceoff drills today, where you're in and around people, you're winning faceoffs, you're getting jounced around, you're getting tossed to the ice.
"Then he also had a two-on-two drill, where you're basically playing man-on-man type of bumping into the corners and puck battles and those sorts of things. Today was Day 1 of that. We'll see where he progresses in Day 3, 4, 5 and 6."
Crosby revealed that he'd been symptom-free for a couple of days, but cautioned that contact was just the first step in his return and there is no real timetable as to when that might occur. Crosby suggested his return would occur "no sooner than Sunday," but said he couldn't put an actual date on it because it would be "total guesswork."
"I just want to make sure I get through these days fine and that would be a great decision to make if I get to that point," Crosby added.
Ideally, the Penguins would like to get Crosby into the lineup before the end of the regular season so he can get some of the rust off his game before the playoffs begin.
Crosby has played in only eight games this season, but had 12 points to show for his efforts. Getting Crosby back for the postseason would move the Penguins to the head of the class among Eastern Conference contenders. Pittsburgh is 39-21-2-3 and the Penguins' 83 points is the second highest total in the Eastern Conference. However, because Atlantic Division rival New York Rangers are eight points clear of everyone in the East, the Penguins would be the fourth seed if the playoffs began today, and they would open against their state rival, the Philadelphia Flyers.
"You just want to make sure you go through all the right steps to prepare for a game, and then when a game comes, hopefully, it goes well," Crosby said.
"I know what I have to do to get ready. I've gone through this once already this year, so I know what to expect, and I want to prepare for it. To jump in at this time of year would definitely be a big step considering how much hockey I've missed, but I know that if I prepare myself the right way, I give myself the best chance to contribute when I do come back."
It has been a difficult 15 months for Crosby, often described as the face of the NHL, ever since he was injured in the 2011 Winter Classic against the Washington Capitals on a hit from David Steckel. Crosby missed the remainder of last season and didn't return to the lineup until Nov. 21, lasting just the eight games until he was knocked out again in a match against the Bruins Dec. 5. In that game, he took an elbow to the head from Bruins centre David Krejci and also collided with teammate Chris Kunitz in the neutral zone.
The Penguins took Crosby out of the lineup at that point, initially suggesting his time on the sidelines would be limited to two games. Now, it's March.
In the interim, Crosby has been seeking a number of medical solutions. On one pilgrimage to Los Angeles, he was diagnosed with a soft-tissue neck problem that doctors suggested could mimic concussion symptoms. Crosby also said that the treatment for his neck issues had resulted in an overall improvement of his condition.
"The neck stuff certainly helped," Crosby said. "With this stuff, it's always trial and error. There's no specific treatment that everybody knows is going to work, but you try to do what's related to what you feel. I definitely felt like I saw some improvement in my neck, with getting that loose. Was it everything? I don't know. But it certainly helped, so that's something I'll continue to do and stay on."