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Penguins captain Crosby practices without facemask

by Chris Adamski

PITTSBURGH -- Sidney Crosby's playoff beard just got markedly more visible.

The Pittsburgh Penguins captain has been given medical clearance to play without the plastic mouth and jaw guard he wore throughout his first 10 Stanley Cup Playoff games this month.

Crosby, who missed the entire month of April in addition to the Penguins' playoff opener because of a broken jaw sustained in a March 30 game against the New York Islanders, practiced Sunday with a regular helmet for the first time since being sidelined by the injury.

To protect his jaw and teeth that were damaged when a puck deflected up into his face March 30, Crosby was required to wear a clear plastic apparatus that extended from his helmet down around the lower part of his face.

"I kind of liked seeing the pictures with him in it," coach Dan Bylsma quipped after practice Sunday. "Those playoff-type of pictures with that on there. But now he can show off his beard a little more."

Sporting a straggly playoff beard, Crosby shrugged off the significance of the removal of the mask.

"I think [taking a] step is probably a big word for taking a little thing off my helmet. It feels weird, actually, because you're used to wearing a full face [shield] for a month," Crosby said. "It actually feels a little bit weird but definitely much better. In terms of getting air and seeing and everything like that, it's much better."

Despite missing the opening game of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Islanders, Crosby is tied with linemate Pascal Dupuis for the playoff lead in goals with seven. Crosby finished tied for third in the regular-season scoring race with Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals after being overtaken during the final week by Tampa Bay Lightning teammates Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos as he missed the Penguins' final 12 regular season games.

Crosby said though he's comfortable with the jaw guard off it might take him a few practices before he's completely reaccustomed to being without the protection when it comes to going into corners or standing in front of the net.

Luckily, he has time. The Eastern Conference Finals schedule has not been set, and Bylsma said the Penguins are planning for their series against the Boston Bruins to start no sooner than Wednesday.

In the past 18 months, Crosby has twice returned from a lengthy absence because of concussion symptoms. On neither occasion was there a noticeable alteration to his game in terms of shying away from contact.

"I'm not sure he's really totally focused on the fact [that the jaw mask] has been there the last two weeks, playing-wise," Bylsma said. "He's not going to go on the ice and think, 'Oh, it's not here right now; I have to be a little more careful in those situations.' It's not going to be an issue at all for Sidney."

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