PITTSBURGH— Call it a step forward for Sidney Crosby, even if it might be only a small one.
Crosby took part in the Penguins’ off-day practice Thursday at the suburban Iceoplex at Southpointe, but sat out all contact drills. Crosby still has not been cleared for contact as he recovers from the concussion-like symptoms that have kept him out of game action since Dec. 5.
While Crosby also skated with the full Penguins team two other times since he last went through a full practice on Dec. 7, this was his most extensive on-ice time with them in the last two-and-a-half months. Since then, he has worked mostly with conditioning coach Mike Kadar and the other players who are out with injuries.
While Crosby’s status still has not changed, the Penguins remain hopeful that he can return this season. They have 22 games remaining.
The concussion-related issues have limited Crosby to eight games this season.
“(It’s) a chance to get on the ice with some more players,” Bylsma said Thursday. “He was out there with our team for the entire practice, although he did not participate in the contact drills that we did have. We’ll see how he progresses and where he’s at in terms of getting on the ice. Sometimes it (what Crosby does) is dictated on if it’s an optional (practice) or how many people will be out there.”
Crosby skated with the Penguins two weeks ago in Montreal and again last Friday, but only because there weren’t any other players to work out with in advance of practice.
Penguins general manager Ray Shero has not indicated whether the uncertainty regarding Crosby’s status will affect what he does at the trading deadline. The Penguins could use another reliable scorer at forward, but numerous other teams have the same need during what looks to be a seller’s market.
Shero has dealt for at least one forward at or near the deadline each of the last five years.
Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen (undisclosed illness) missed practice Thursday, but defenseman Brooks Orpik and goaltender Brent Johnson participated. Both were out for the Penguins’ 2-0 victory over the New York Rangers on Tuesday -- Orpik with an upper body injury and Johnson with an illness.
After one of their best all-around performances of the season, the Penguins remain at Consol Energy Center for back-to-back weekend afternoon games against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday and the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday.
The Penguins beat Tampa Bay 4-2 behind Evgeni Malkin’s two goals Feb. 12 in Pittsburgh, so Bylsma doesn’t need to go back very far for a reference point on how the Lightning are playing. Tampa Bay is 3-1 since then, with a Thursday night game against Winnipeg still to play; while the Penguins are 2-2.
What the Penguins didn’t see then was the 1-3-1 defensive system the Lightning were playing earlier under coach Guy Boucher.
“I think Tampa Bay has started to play a little bit differently in their system,” Bylsma said. “They’re not as stout at playing the 1-3-1 that we saw from them (previously), where the game was getting clogged in the neutral zone and really tough to play against. We played a team a couple of weeks ago that had won a lot of games in a row (7-1-2 in their previous 10) and was making a push.”
If the Blue Jackets haven’t moved forward Rick Nash by then, Sunday’s game could be played with an air of anticipation that it could be Nash’s last in a Blue Jackets jersey.
“They don’t have the pressure of a playoff race or that type of pressure, but they’re going out and playing hard right now,” Bylsma said of the Blue Jackets, who beat San Jose 6-3 on Tuesday after losing to the Rangers 3-2 in overtime on Sunday “We’ll look at that and expect that on Sunday.”