PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Sidney Crosby was uncommonly upbeat a few minutes before his fourth training camp practice in as many days Tuesday, regularly flashing smiles while fending off the playful kidding of his Pittsburgh Penguins teammates.
The reason for Crosby's cheerfulness seems evident. He appears to be getting closer to being cleared for contact ? the biggest remaining hurdle as he recovers from a concussion that has sidelined the Penguins' star for 8 1/2 months.
Only two weeks after being asked repeatedly during a news conference if he would play this season, Crosby is fielding questions about how well he will play once he is back. It's a sign his on-ice comeback from a serious injury is going even better than he might have expected after a few workouts.
"I'm pretty happy with the way they've gone so far," Crosby said.
That was evident as Crosby skated full speed through another vigorous, go-all-out practice, this time with Penguins co-star Evgeni Malkin skating alongside him in the same workout group. Malkin, who is recovering from knee surgery, scored two goals during an intrasquad game Monday night in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
Crosby hasn't backed off any drill, except those that require contact. But he hasn't appeared reluctant to engage in any contact, skating just as hard and as fast into the corners as any of his teammates during puck possession drills.
Crosby clearly has progressed significantly from a few weeks ago. Back then, he was forced to cut back on his off-season conditioning work due to concussion-related side effects that occurred once he reached the 90 per cent exertion rate.
During camp, Crosby has been going at full speed full time and with no symptoms.
"That's the optimistic thing about seeing Sid out there. It's tough," coach Dan Bylsma said. "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 . . . He's getting tired and he's working just like every other guy out there."
When camp started Saturday, Bylsma didn't commit to Crosby being available for every practice, saying only he was day to day.
Crosby still won't guess when he might be cleared for hitting during camp, saying, "No clue." But there are numerous signs it could be relatively soon.
"The practices I???ve been in have been pretty tough, pretty intense," Crosby said. "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 in whole different element. It makes it a little bit more difficult."
Crosby was making it look easy until hard hits in successive games Jan. 1 and Jan. 5 gave him his first career concussion and ended his 2010-11 season. He had 32 goals and 66 points in 41 games and was on pace for the highest scoring total by an NHL player in 15 years.
Crosby is eager to see if he can return to that level again.
"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," he said. "It might take some time.
"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."
For now, Crosby doesn't know if that will be for the Penguins' opener Oct. 6 in Vancouver, although that might be a bit premature. Team doctors will have the final say as to when Crosby can start accepting and throwing hits in practice, the step required before he can begin preparing to play again.
While Crosby's NHL return will result in considerable attention, at least the Penguins don't have to deal with potential distractions such as a European trip, another Winter Classic appearance or an HBO TV special, all of which they've experienced the last few seasons.
"It does seem a little weird that we haven't done anything, but it's also not a bad thing," Crosby said. "It's kind of the usual routine, and we just kind of go about things the same way."
Even if Crosby has never gone about training camp the way he is now.
For three days, he wore a white helmet signifying no contact while his teammates wore black helmets. During practice Tuesday, all of those in Crosby's group wore white helmets.
And, if nothing else, Crosby's layoff is giving him time to refresh physically ??? he's never before had so much time away from the game ??? and further appreciate being able to play hockey at such a high level.
"I've never taken it for granted," he said. "That's one thing for sure. I think it's like anything in life.
"When you don't have it, you realize how much you miss it."
He even misses the hitting and physicality of the NHL, which has strengthened its rules regarding head shots in an effort to reduce the number of concussions sustained by its players.
Crosby was asked how he will be introduced to contact once he is cleared for it.
"Probably the biggest guy," he said, grinning. "It'd be nice if (250-pound Penguins enforcer) Steve MacIntyre got a hold of me with a good one, and then we'll see how we do."