Sidney Crosby skated on the Pittsburgh Penguins' fifth line during their off-day practice Saturday, the initial tip-off that he won't play Sunday against the Boston Bruins. Once he got off the ice, he made it official.
"Hopefully, it's soon," said Crosby, the former NHL MVP and scoring champion who has been limited to eight games in 14 months because of concussion-related issues.
With only two full practices since being cleared for contact on Tuesday, Crosby realized he hasn't been tested enough physically to play in a game. The earliest he can return is Thursday against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
"If anything, a bigger game like that (the Rangers on Thursday), you focus even more, you have to be that much more ready. This isn't the time to go out there and feel your way around, these are important games. I've got to make sure I'm ready and I'm responsible out there." -- Sidney Crosby
Crosby hasn't played since Dec. 5 because of a recurrence of the concussion problems that sidelined him for the final 41 games of last season and the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the first 20 games this season. During his current layoff, a soft tissue injury in the top two vertebrae in his neck also was discovered and treated.
Crosby did not commit to a return date when he resumed practicing, but he said it could be no earlier than Sunday.
"We weren't planning on a date or a day for him to return," coach Dan Bylsma said. "We were talking since Wednesday or so that we wanted to put four to five good days of practice together. When we did that, as we progressed and things went well, we would go from there. And we're in the middle of that right now."
The challenge is fitting in sufficient practice time for Crosby during a crowded schedule. After Sunday, the Penguins wrap up the regular season with 14 games in 24 days, starting with a critical three-game road swing against the Rangers, Devils and Flyers.
The games are important, intense and competitive as the playoffs near, and Crosby understands he cannot return prematurely and risk another setback.
Contact in practice can never replicate that of a game, but Crosby believes he needs more of the routine physical play – getting banged around on faceoffs and in puck possession battles in the corner, for example – before he is comfortable returning to late-season, must-win hockey.
"I still think I need to get to another level as far as the extent of the physicality out there," Crosby said following practice at the suburban Iceoplex at Southpointe rink. "Yeah, there's been nothing that's been alarming. I've been happy, but when you have those high expectations, I'm making sure I'm ready to play the way I need to. (Being) tested and well tested is most important. Hopefully I'll get that in the next few days."
He added, "Having gone through this, you realize this is something you have to adjust to, you've got to make sure everything is right."
Crosby's return could transform the Penguins from one of the NHL's elite teams to a Stanley Cup favorite – especially if he can play at a level resembling that of a year ago, when he had 32 points and 66 assists in 41 games. He had two goals and two assists during his comeback game Nov. 21 against the Islanders, and 12 points overall in his eight games.
Even without their marquee star for most of the season, the Penguins are 41-21-5 and are in position to gain one of the top four spots in the Eastern Conference and home-ice advantage for at least the opening round of the playoffs. They have won eight in a row, and they closed to within four points of the first-place Rangers in the Eastern Conference by beating the Florida Panthers 2-1 on Friday.
"If anything, a bigger game like that (the Rangers on Thursday), you focus even more, you have to be that much more ready," Crosby said. "This isn't the time to go out there and feel your way around, these are important games. I've got to make sure I'm ready and I'm responsible out there."
Until he resumed practicing Tuesday, Crosby mostly skated and worked out on his own, although he practiced – without contact – a couple of times. The only hitting since then was Tuesday and Saturday in practice, plus some drills with teammates Eric Tangradi and Dustin Jeffrey on Thursday, an off day for the rest of the team.
"We've been kind of looking at the schedule and what makes sense. He feels good and that's a good sign," Bylsma said. "We have a couple of more practices early next week and then we have a lot of hockey the next four weeks."
Crosby has been symptom free since returning to practice, an especially encouraging sign.
"I've been really happy up to this point," he said.
There's another reason why the 2009 Stanley Cup-winning captain wants to return only when he is certain he is ready.
"I don't want to go through this again," he said.
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang (concussion-like symptoms) also practiced Saturday but no return date has been set. He was out for nearly two months with a concussion, returned to play some of the best hockey of his career – he had six goals and six assists in 18 games and was a force on the power play – before getting hurt again Feb. 29 against Dallas.