PITTSBURGH -- Finally, the news the Pittsburgh Penguins waited three months to hear: Sidney Crosby is symptom-free and is expected to resume playing soon.
Crosby, sidelined for all but eight games this season due to concussion-like symptoms, was cleared for contact and practiced with the Penguins on Tuesday. He could return as early as Sunday, when the Penguins play the Boston Bruins, though Crosby is not pinpointing a specific return date.
"No sooner than Sunday, I would say, but I'm not going to sit here and put a date on it," said Crosby, who expects to take part in game-day morning skates Wednesday and Friday and full practices Thursday and Saturday. "It would be total guesswork. I just want to make sure I get through these days fine."
If all goes well the rest of the week, Crosby said, "That would be a great decision to make if I get to that point."
"Contact is the big step. It's nice to be symptom-free, but it's not as fulfilling as when you're out there (playing). I just want to make sure that I take the right steps here and get back out there soon." -- Sidney Crosby
"There were a lot of bumps. As soon as they knew I could get contact, I was getting a lot of bumps, even in drills," he said. "The lineup was a dangerous place to be today. It was fun to be out there with them and hopefully it's a regular occurrence."
Crosby hasn't played since Dec. 5, when several hits in a physical game against the Bruins left him with concussion-like symptoms only two weeks after he had returned to the lineup for the first time in nearly 11 months.
Crosby later learned that he had a soft-tissue injury in his neck, in addition to the concussion-related problems that put him out for the final 41 games of last season and the Stanley Cup Playoffs, then the first 20 games of this season. Five weeks ago, Crosby received an injection to alleviate vertebrae inflammation that doctors told him could be causing neurological symptoms that replicate those of a concussion.
"The neck stuff certainly helped," Crosby said. "I definitely felt I saw improvement on my neck, getting that loose. Was it everything? I don't know, but it certainly helped. It's something I'll continue to do and stay on."
Widely acknowledged as the NHL's premier player and marquee star when he was injured while being hit hard in successive games during the first week of January 2011 -- he had 32 goals and 34 assists in 41 games at the time -- Crosby has been equally patient and persistent during his latest layoff.
He has pushed himself hard on his own during individual workouts and occasional contact-free practices with the Penguins, sometimes being so exhausted by the end of the drills that he went down on one knee to rest.
Now, the wait is nearly finished. Again.
"Contact is the big step," Crosby said following his first contact-permitted practice since Dec. 7, or two days after that Bruins game. "It's nice to be symptom-free, but it's not as fulfilling as when you're out there (playing). I just want to make sure that I take the right steps here and get back out there soon."
If returns Sunday, Crosby could play as many as 15 regular season games before the playoffs begin. He will likely need some time to get accustomed to playing again -- even though he had two goals and two assists during his Nov. 21 comeback against the Islanders, his first game since Jan. 5, 2011.
Pittsburgh winds up a four-game homestand Sunday before going on the road to meet the Rangers, Devils and Flyers next week.
The Penguins, already streaking with a six-game winning streak and an 18-4-1 record in their past 23 games, now could be getting back their superstar with plenty of time to get him settled him before the playoffs. Crosby didn't need much time earlier this season to get back to game speed piling up 12 points in the eight games he played.
Think that Bylsma can't wait to again designate Crosby as one of the starters just before the team hits the ice for a game?
"Today wasn't extensive in terms of getting a lot of contact. He had some extra drills after practice with some contact," Bylsma said. "We'll see over the next few days before we decided on when there might be a date."
Still, Crosby knows that it's next to impossible to replicate game-type, full-speed contact in practice.
To prepare the 24-year-old Crosby to resume his career, Bylsma plans to put him through, as he said, "Different levels of contact ... continue to try to implement drills where he gets those types of situations, where he does get contact in traffic, in the faceoff circle, taking draws and one-on-one battles."
General manager Ray Shero didn't make any moves at the NHL Trade Deadline last week, but said at the time it wasn't because he was anticipating Crosby being back in the lineup in the near future. As it turns out, he might have had more than a hint that Crosby could be back soon.
If they were in a more precarious situation playoff-wise, perhaps the Penguins would have attached more urgency to a Crosby return. Instead, the Penguins have routinely gone about their business, riding Evgeni Malkin's scoring touch -- he has a League-high 81 points -- and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury's strong play to a 39-21-5 record and 83 points, the second most in the Eastern Conference.
Bylsma insisted his players didn't have any hint until Tuesday that Crosby could be returning soon.
"We talked about Sid being in practice with contact, and that was the first time the guys on the ice knew that was coming," Bylsma said when asked whether the Penguins might lose focus now that they now Crosby could be back. "I don't think any more than normal with the anticipation of Crosby back in our lineup and what that means for our team with the playoffs 17 games away."
Despite his relatively young age, Crosby is one of the League's most accomplished players, having won a Stanley Cup, and Olympic gold medal, an Art Ross Trophy and a Hart Trophy by age 22. And the Penguins, the NHL's worst team before he arrived as the No. 1 draft pick in 2005, have returned to being one of the NHL's elite teams almost since the day he first played for them as an 18-year-old.
Crosby is one of two key regulars the Penguins hope to have back before the playoffs.
Defenseman Kris Letang, also out for the second time this season with concussion-like symptoms, is feeling better according to Bylsma but still has some symptoms. He felt good enough Tuesday to do some light exercising off the ice.
"I don't quite know what that means in terms of a timetable, short term or long term," Bylsma said. "It (a concussion) hasn't been diagnosed at this point in time. He's still having symptoms."
Letang hasn't played since absorbing a hard hit from the Stars' Eric Nystrom on Feb. 29. Nystrom that resulted in a roughing penalty to Nystrom.