PITTSBURGH — If, when and until he steps on the ice against an opponent who is allowed to hit him, Sidney Crosby is the great unknown in these Stanley Cup playoffs.
Will he play?
How hard did he practice on an off-day?
When will he be cleared for contact?
Can the Penguins really make a deep spring run without their captain who started the season in the best form of his career and spent the past three months fuzzy and forlorn?
All these questions and more on the eve of the opener in the Penguins best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarter-final meeting with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Crosby practised with the team for the 11th consecutive time Tuesday, skated for more than an hour and by all accounts is getting faster and flashier by the day.
The symptoms of the concussion sustained first on Jan. 1 in the Winter Classic across the river here at Heinz Field seem to be fading, even as prevailing opinion suggest Sid the Kid is still weeks away from game action.
That hasn’t stopped some wild speculation that the Penguins are playing a perfect game of possum and that Crosby might return soon, a notion hosed off by his coach on Tuesday.
“There’s no change in Sidney Crosby’s status,” Dan Bylsma told reporters at the team’s suburban practice facility. “The fact that he’s practising with the team has not changed his progression.
“He did not participate in the contact portion of the drills and the other players are aware of that and know that and to stay away from him.”
What began as potentially the most prolific season of his already decorated career came to a crashing halt — quite literally — when Crosby was decked by then-Washington Capitals forward David Steckel in the wildly hyped Winter Classic. After being clocked by Tampa’s Viktor Hedman in the next game, it has been lights out for Crosby ever since.
Barring a surprise grand entrance then, the slick new Consol Energy Center (complete with a capacity of 18,087 in obvious honour of the captain) will get its playoff christening on Wednesday night without the main man.
Doing his best to avoid the speculative side show, first-year Lightning coach Guy Boucher is wisely telling his players to be prepared for a surprise at any point.
“We can’t say if he’s not playing that they don’t have a great team,” said Boucher, whose team had two blowout losses in Pittsburgh this season, falling 5-1 and 8-1. “They are a great team. With him, they are an amazing team. We are playing a great or amazing team so we have to be at our best.”
While the smart money would be on Crosby not playing at all this series — and perhaps not any time this spring — optimists float another theory: Like how about Game 5?
After the first two games here Wednesday and Friday, the pacing of the series slows to a crawl. There will be two days off between Games 2 and 3 and again between Games 4 and 5 which will be played back here in the Steel City on April 23.
Meanwhile, though they are a fourth-seed, the Penguins hardly resemble it. They made a surprising late bid for the conference title, finishing with 106 points, just one less than the Washington Capitals. That they did so without Evgeni Malkin (knee), who missed 39 games and is out for good, and Crosby (41 and counting) is near remarkable.
In fact, it is the Lightning that has the early series edge in firepower with stars such as Steven Stamkos (45 goals despite a late slump) and Martin St. Louis (a team-high 99 points.)
“This year, the one thing I’m most proud about is that we didn’t slide into the playoffs,” Bylsma said. “The team found a way to keep working and battling and be successful using a number of different players at different times.”