PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Sidney Crosby was on the ice for the weary Pittsburgh Penguins optional skate Friday, one of only a handful of players from the NHL's busiest team who didn't take the day off.
No surprise there. With his concussion symptoms vanishing, Crosby can't wait to get to the rink these days. His return to the sport he was dominating at this time a year ago appears to be drawing ever so close.
How close? That remains the unanswered question, although there isn't the slightest hint it will occur when Pittsburgh visits Toronto for a Saturday night matchup of two hot teams.
It's been two-plus weeks since Crosby ? who last played on Jan. 5 ? was cleared for full contact in practice, yet he has endured nothing harsher than a bump or a shove. That's hardly preparation for a mid-ice collision with a Zdeno Chara or a Colton Orr, or the grind of negotiating a schedule that has five months worth of games remaining.
But during an otherwise routine morning skate Thursday, Crosby was a blur on the Consol Energy Center ice, flying down the wings, beating goalies Marc-Andre Fleury and Brent Johnson with shots that arrived on net from a variety of angles. It was a literal whirlwind of speed, precision and skill by an athlete who, only a few months ago, had trouble merely negotiating crowds because of his concussion.
Crosby also devoted a few moments practising how to minimize the risk of injury while sliding into the end boards.
Even if the Penguins hadn't been wearing the unique purple warm-up jerseys as part of the NHL's Hockey Fights Cancer campaign, Crosby ??? the runaway leader in the NHL scoring race when he was hurt in early January ??? would have easily stood out from the crowd.
While Crosby hasn't spoken to reporters about his status since Saturday, he almost seems to be etching his answer onto the ice with his skate blades: You can't keep me away from this much longer.
Still, ask him how he's doing, and he'll answer, "There's nothing new."
Oh, yes there is.
Crosby drove himself at a full-tilt, 100-percent flat-out pace during training camp, yet he wasn't skating then with this much burst, this much energy. His elite talent level is clearly discernible during the most routine of drills, although he plays for a team that is 8-2-2 and owns an NHL-best 18 points.
All this would seem to suggest that Crosby's return is mere days away, yet there is one more still-to-be-solved puzzle remaining: What if he gets hit?
The Penguins may begin to learn that next week.
Following Saturday's game, they play only twice in 12 days a welcomed respite after playing 13 games in a hectic 24 days. Only once have they had a two-day break between games.
But they will get four days off after facing the Maple Leafs and, after playing twice in three nights in California, will enjoy another five days off before a Nov. 11 home game against Dallas.
The schedule breaks will provide coach Dan Bylsma's team with some much-needed practice time, and an opportunity for Crosby to absorb some hitting.
"I think our team ??? and not just Sidney ??? knows we need some work and some work days," Bylsma said.
If Crosby negotiates those practices without any concussion-related problems ??? and none have been reported since training camp began Sept. 17 ??? he could get the clearance to resume his dazzling-to-date career.
Looking for a possible date? After the Stars game, the Penguins play at Carolina on Nov. 12, at home against Colorado on Nov. 15 and at Tampa on Nov. 17 and at Florida on the 19th.
Playing away from Pittsburgh would create fewer distractions when Crosby returns. But, given that the Penguins have waited nearly 10 months, it's unlikely they would delay his comeback a single day once they know he's ready.
What must surprise the rest of the NHL is how well they're playing without him.
The Penguins are 31-15-7 in their past 52 games without Crosby and, riding a five-game winning streak, are off to an impressive start ??? especially considering that co-star Evgeni Malkin has missed seven games with right knee soreness.
Malkin returned this week for back-to-back games against the Islanders, getting the winning goal in a shootout as Pittsburgh recovered from a two-goal deficit to win 3-2 on Thursday.
Not that Bylsma isn't impressed with the Maple Leafs, who are 6-2-1 during their best start since the 2004-05 lockout. Pittsburgh was 2-1-1 against Toronto last season.
"They're an explosive team right now," Bylsma said. "They're being led by (Phil) Kessel, who's a dangerous guy, but they've also got Joffrey Lupul. They've got different areas where they're doing well, they've got a solid defence and they've gotten great goaltending as well.
"It's early in the season, but this is kind of the way they were playing at the end of last season, when they were pushing for the playoffs. I think you see a confident team."
The Penguins won't play in Toronto again until Feb. 1, when they hope the Maple Leafs see a confident team, as well. A team led by Sidney Crosby.
For now, though, the return must wait. Even if it might not be for long.