PITTSBURGH -- Nobody needs to tell Sidney Crosby what he's missing. Life without hockey hasn't been the same for him for the last 8 1/2 months, if only because it's the kind of void he's never before experienced.
What is encouraging to the Pittsburgh Penguins and, most of all, to their world-class center, is that Crosby might not be without it much longer.
Crosby went through an up-tempo and demanding practice for the fourth consecutive day Tuesday, with no side effects or symptoms from the concussion that has kept him out of games since early January. While he still isn't being allowed contact, there has been plenty of jostling along the boards and in the corners during drills.
And when teammate Chris Kunitz inadvertently dropped a shoulder and appeared to check him late in a drill Sunday, that's about as close to routine game-type contact as one can come in a supposedly no-contact drill.
Perhaps that why Crosby appeared upbeat, almost excited to be working out again Tuesday. And why not?
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While he answered "no clue," when asked again about being cleared for contact, there are an increasing number of hints that it could be allowed relatively soon. That would be a precursor to him being cleared to play in games.
"The practices I’ve been in have been pretty tough, pretty intense," said Crosby, who practiced Tuesday for the first time with star center Evgeni Malkin, who is recovering from knee surgery. "But I think everyone’s kind of felt that way, so I don’t feel like I’m too far behind. That being said, hitting kind of throws a whole different element in the physical part of the game. It makes it a little bit more difficult. So skating-wise and that kind of thing, it’s starting to come. When you throw some contact in there, that’ll be a new step."
One that might not be all that far away, given the speed and intensity with which Crosby has practiced so far.
As coach Dan Bylsma said, Crosby just isn't just coming to the rink every day, skating a few leisurely laps and calling it a day. He's involved full speed in every drill, every minute of skating and is sitting out only during scrimmaging.
"It's a tough, tough few days for everybody, and that's the optimistic thing about seeing Sid out there. It's tough," Bylsma said before Crosby practiced. "It's not a practice toward the end of the year where the heart rate is not getting near max. You're getting maxed out and you push through fatigue, and that's where he's been for Day 1, Day 2, Day 3. He's getting tired and he's working just like every other guy out there. That's the good thing to see that he's going through."
The first three days of camp, Crosby wore a white helmet, signifying no-contact, while all the other skaters wore black ones. On Tuesday, everyone in Crosby's group wore a white helmet.
Crosby's speed and his willingness to go throttle-down in all drills also are positive signs as the Penguins await his return. Only last month, he was forced to back off some conditioning drills because of headaches that occurred once he reached the 90 percent exertion level.
But at camp, Crosby said there hasn't been a minute when he hasn't gone 100 percent. It's almost as if he's in a rush to get back what has been taken from him since January: the game of hockey.
Be assured that Crosby will be disappointed that he can't play Wednesday when the Penguins open their preseason schedule against the Detroit Red Wings at Consol Energy Center.
"I’ve never taken it for granted. That’s one thing for sure," Crosby said. "I think it’s like anything in life. When you don’t have it, you realize how much you miss it. I think that’s fair to say. For me, I don’t think I’ve ever taken it for granted. Maybe in a way I will appreciate it. I think through this whole process, there’s things that I’ve learned to appreciate more that I didn’t before. So, yeah, I think that’s probably fair to say."
Crosby understands that once he returns, it might take some time to get back to the level he was playing at last season.
When he was injured exactly midway through the season, Crosby had a substantial lead in the NHL scoring race with 32 goals and 66 points in 41 games. He was on pace for the most points of any NHL player since Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux had 161 points in 1995-96. With Crosby missing the second half of the season, Daniel Sedin of Vancouver wound up winning the scoring title with 104 points.
"I'd love to be able to say that the first game, I'm right back where I left off. But it's probably pretty unrealistic. I think it's fair, though, to want to get back there and I understand that it might take some time," Crosby said. "With that being said, that's where I want to be. That's probably the best I've felt since I've played in the NHL and that's where I want to get to. How long that will take, I don't know. But I'm going to do my best to get back there as soon as I can."
If there's any positive for the 24-year-old Crosby, it's that NHL players usually don't get so much time off to rejuvenate physically from the wear and tear of a long season. Following both the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, the Penguins had the shortest offseason possible after reaching the Stanley Cup Final.
Crosby's only previous extended in-season layoff came when he missed about seven weeks in 2007-08 with a high ankle sprain.
"The first part of it, I think you feel pretty energized. But once you hit the first couple of months, it starts to set in," he said. "Once you start to get into that grind, you probably feel it a little bit more. You kind of have to get over that hump for a little bit. Eventually I think maybe later on it will pay off, those extra months."