PITTSBURGH - Sidney Crosby enjoyed his best and most demanding practice since injuring his right ankle, skating at full speed Monday and spinning off several of the gee-whiz passes that only an elite few NHL playmakers can make.
Crosby was without the yellow, no-contact jersey he first wore when he resumed practising with the Pittsburgh Penguins last week. There was no sign that linemates Ryan Malone and Colby Armstrong were slowing down to accommodate their still-healing teammate.
For now, though, it was only a tease.
While Crosby looked to be in game shape, last season's NHL scoring champion and MVP cautioned that he isn't ready to return from his high ankle sprain - and he isn't certain when he will be.
"I'm probably more comfortable on the ice because I've been out there a little bit longer now, but other than that there hasn't been a huge improvement at this point," said Crosby, who said he definitely won't play Tuesday night against Florida. "It's just going to take time."
After Crosby was injured crashing into the boards Jan. 18 against Tampa Bay, doctors estimated that he would be out six to eight weeks. That forecast has not been adjusted, even though Crosby is practising much earlier than expected.
"I have expectations of trying to improve every day and hoping it does improve every day, but that's not always the case, especially with this," Crosby said of an injury he acknowledges is painful and long-lasting. "Some days are worse than others."
Crosby needs clearance from team physician Charles Burke before playing - but, as Crosby said, it's really the player's call, because only he knows how he feels.
"You just have to go by feel, and I've tried to educate myself with the way it heals," Crosby said. "I think I'll know when I'm ready as far as what my body tells me."
Crosby, last season's NHL scoring champion and MVP, resumed skating as soon as possible to maintain his conditioning. He said he is pleased that his leg strength has quickly returned.
But Crosby is apparently having problems making the quick stops, cuts and turns that are necessary to play at his accustomed level.
"It's just one of those lingering things," Crosby said. "As long as it (the healing) is not going backward, and I have to miss more time after I come back, that's the main thing for me - as long as the strength's there."
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury's recovery from the same injury illustrates why Crosby's status remains cloudy. Fleury injured his right ankle Dec. 6 and only now appears to be close to returning.
Fleury, a 40-game winner last season, allowed only two goals on 58 shots during two rehabilitation starts for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (AHL) last week and was to make a third start Monday in Binghamton. He could be ready to play for Pittsburgh as early as Thursday in Montreal.
However, there is no sense of urgency on the Penguins' part to rush Fleury back. Ty Conklin, who was in the minors until December, has a 15-4-3 record since Fleury was hurt and his .932 save percentage led the NHL through Sunday's games.
"Nothing has changed for us," coach Michel Therrien said. "Performance dictates ice time and that's not going to change."
Conklin played one of his strongest games of the season Sunday, turning aside 36 of 37 shots during Pittsburgh's 4-1 victory in Buffalo.
Fleury may play again Wednesday and, if necessary, Friday for Wilkes-Barre, Therrien said. But with Pittsburgh playing four games in six days beginning Tuesday, it seems likely Fleury will start one of those games.
Similarly, Crosby is under no pressure to rush back prematurely, since the Penguins are 7-4-2 without him and trail Atlantic Division leader New Jersey by only two points.
With Crosby out, Evgeni Malkin not only has assumed the role of team leader and leading scorer, he is making a push for the NHL scoring title. Malkin has 11 goals and 14 assists for 25 points in 13 games, including seven multiple-point games.
"Right now it's a little bit easier because we're winning," Crosby said. "You don't want to base it too much on that (the standings), and we haven't been faced with that scenario yet. ... To see them doing well, that's the biggest thing for me."