PITTSBURGH - Just in time to prep for the playoffs (but not in time to pounce on the Maple Leafs), Sidney Crosby is surging back into game shape.
Crosby took a big leap forward here on Tuesday when he was cleared for contact for the first time since suffering a return of his concussion symptoms on Dec. 5. The news adds even more buzz to one of the NHL’s hottest teams, one that is emerging as a serious Stanley Cup contender at just the right time.
“Obviously I’ve been through this before and contact is a big step,” Crosby told reporters after practice in advance of Wednesday’s game against Toronto. “It’s not as fulfilling until you can get out there. I just want to make sure I take the right steps to get back soon.”
Though he will have to survive a few more days of bumping in practice and remain symptom-free, Crosby hinted that it may well be sooner than later.
“I’m going to give myself days, for sure, of contact,” Crosby said. “If you look at our schedule, we have two more practices this week. No sooner than Sunday, I would say, but I’m not going to sit here and put a date on it. It would be total guesswork.”
You can bet the NHL and its chief U.S. broadcast partner, NBC, would love for that extremely mild hint at Sunday to come true given it is the network’s game of the week. But even if it’s three or four games further down the schedule, if he’s able to remain healthy, Crosby has plenty of time to get in playoff shape.
There are obvious reasons not to get too far ahead in the prognosis after all the setbacks Crosby has had since first suffering a concussion in the opening days of 2011. A year ago, the Crosby watch began in earnest in the hope that he would return in time for the playoffs. It ever materialized, of course, and the Penguins were upset by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round.
But Crosby would appear to be in far better shape this March, most recently taking care of neck problems that had affected his concussion-like symptoms. In his eight-game return starting in November, he was at times dazzling until a couple of sharp hits in the Dec. 5 game against the Bruins put him back on the shelf.
Before Tuesday’s clearance, Crosby had been aggressive in his conditioning, leading further credence to a potential accelerated return.
“He’s been skating hard for a number of days, if not weeks,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said on Tuesday. “We’ll see over the next few days before we decide on when there might be a date.”
Entering Wednesday’s game against the Leafs, the Penguins have won six in a row and with 83 points are still a clear second to the New York Rangers (91 points) in the Eastern Conference, but the prospect of a healthy Sid The Kid returning makes the gap in the standings somewhat pointless.
The Penguins certainly provide a stiff test for the Leafs, who will be playing on consecutive nights. The Penguins are riding a four-game home winning streak and are 10-1 in their past 11 at the Consol Energy Center, outscoring their opponents 42-25 in that stretch.
The Crosby watch isn’t over yet, of course, but with 17 games remaining, the Penguins have emerged as serious Stanley Cup favourites. The NHL’s leading scorer, Evgeni Malkin, has been a highlight machine many nights and has emerged as perhaps the front-runner for MVP playing on a line with Chris Kunitz and James Neal.
Add Crosby into the mix and the Penguins may be an even more formidable force than they were three years ago when they won their first Cup in the Crosby era.
“I’ve pushed myself as hard as I can, practice wise,” Crosby said. “The contact is the big step, that and making sure I’m symptom free.”