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With superstar Crosby back, a dream season for Penguins?

DENVER — Penguins fans dream about captain Sidney Crosby returning from his 14-month bout with concussions and ending the most challenging chapter of his life by lifting the Stanley Cup.

Turns out some of his teammates share that dream.

"We're hoping it's going to be like Christmas morning one day," defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. "We're going to walk in and, 'Oh, cool. We get the best player in the world back.' "

Crosby skates before, during or after Penguins practice almost every day. He still looks like the player who dominated the NHL before two hits he absorbed in January 2011 changed everything.

Crosby regularly puts on a show in practice and, if his symptoms disappear soon, could be on the ice this postseason. And that's a tempting thought for his teammates.

"A lot of us think about the possibilities," defenseman Paul Martin said. "I think a lot of us realize how good we are right now. You get the best player in the league back — and don't forget about how well (Evgeni Malkin) is playing — and yeah, we realize how good we can be."

After seeing the Penguins first-hand in a 4-2 loss last week, Columbus goalie Curtis Sanford agreed. He played well but was overwhelmed during a three-goal third period.

"That team is so good right now," he said. "They've got Malkin and his line. That power play. That defense. They've got (Marc-Andre) Fleury in net. It's already one of the best teams in the league. Now, give them Crosby• Who's going to beat them• Heck yeah, they're the favorite if that happens."

Nobody knows how likely that is. Crosby last spoke with reporters Feb. 17, and although he maintained his desire to play this season, there was no sign of certainty in his voice. The headaches that flared up eight games into his return have slowed but not disappeared.

Until Crosby is symptom-free, he will not return. The stunning precision of his game in practice will remain nothing but a cruel tease to him and his teammates.

"We know that we can't count on him right now," defenseman Zbynek Michalek said. "We know that, right now, it's about the group we have playing."

But Michalek wouldn't mind counting on Crosby when the postseason arrives.

"We do feel good about how we're playing without him, but it sure would be great having him back," he said. "We have a tough hill to climb if we're going all the way. Obviously he would help."

The Penguins know Crosby might not return this season, but the thought of hockey's biggest name rejoining one of its best teams is enticing.

"You don't want to get too excited, because you never really know," Martin said. "But in the back of our minds, we're thinking about it. We hope it happens."

If it does, the Penguins' daydreaming might become a nightmare for the rest of the NHL.

"We just hope he gets better and comes back," Lovejoy said, "and helps us go all the way."

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