Crosby return could come soon
Those who know the old Sidney Crosby rediscovered him this week.
A teammate marveled at his timing during individual on-ice workouts. An assistant coach noted the confidence with which he carried himself in the dressing room. A member of management mentioned the return of familiar steely focus to his eyes.
All that remains is Crosby slipping on a Penguins game jersey.
That doesn't appear to be far off, barring an unexpected setback in his recovery from a concussion that has kept him sidelined since Jan. 5.
"There's a good feeling around here," Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis said.
Those associated with the Penguins are expecting to hear "Crosby is cleared" sometime soon from a team physician.
At that point, which Crosby confidants are cautiously optimistic could come within the week — he will resume full practices, with sights set on playing in, if not before, the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"All year we've battled hard, and sometimes you think, 'If this guy comes back, if this guy gets back ... ' " Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said, his smile widening as his thought finished. "Obviously, getting (Crosby) back will be the big bonus."
Crosby's return would boost the Penguins, who have played only two games with Crosby, fellow centers Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, and Fleury in the lineup.
Malkin, the 2009 NHL scoring champion and playoff MVP, is lost for the season after right knee surgery.
Crosby's return should be enough to make the Penguins one of the favorites to raise the Cup in June. After his last game, they were third overall in goals scored, even though Malkin had scored only 15 goals and produced just 34 points.
They rated 10th as of Saturday and have scored two or fewer goals in 18 games missed by Crosby. Still, they have recorded 13 of 36 possible points from those contests.
Credit a stout team defense — sixth overall as of yesterday and to be emboldened today by the return of defenseman Brooks Orpik from a 13-game absence with a broken finger. The Penguins were fourth overall, second in the Eastern Conference, in team defense before Orpik's injury Feb. 23.
Consider the type of player potentially added in Crosby, at least based on his statistical standing after his last game: first in goals (32) and points (66); tied for second in assists (34) and power-play goals (10); tied for fourth in plus/minus (20); and fifth in shooting percentage (19.9 percent).
"One of those seasons," veteran Detroit center Mike Modano said of Crosby's pre-concussion dominance, which included a 25-game point streak.
The Penguins are prepared for, and somewhat expecting, a less-dominant Crosby for a couple of reasons:
• If he doesn't play before Game 1 of the playoffs, Crosby will have missed 41 straight games — half a season. Timing will be a factor, especially if, as anticipated, he is flanked by unfamiliar wingers in James Neal and Alex Kovalev, each of whom has joined the Penguins since Crosby last played.
• As noted by renowned neurologist Dr. Julian Bailes of West Virginia University, there is no way to predict how an athlete will respond to game situations after a concussion. Crosby's concussion kept him from engaging in strenuous activity for nine weeks, "a long time to be out," said Bailes, who has worked with the NFL Players Association on concussions.
Still, Crosby at 75 percent of his pre-concussion form would rate as a significant addition to a team that has gutted out an 18-11-5 record in his absence, including a 12-1-5 mark in one-goal games.
"Even if he's not coming back as hot as he was earlier, he would still help our team," Penguins defenseman Kris Letang said, citing Crosby's intangibles such as tireless work ethic, leadership by example and a lauded lust for winning.
Added Staal: "Every player in this room has that drive and determination to win games, and it starts with our leader. It comes from Sid, the way he carries himself, and it goes right down the line."
The company line for players had been not to speak of Crosby's status.
Their willingness to talk publicly about him this week for the first time in months was the latest signal of a shift toward optimism first sparked by Crosby's return to the ice March 14.
Wednesday morning, Orpik, who in days prior had skated with Crosby, described him as "flying out there."
Friday morning, strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar shook his head in bewilderment as Crosby turned on a dime near the corner boards, darted toward the cage and ripped a shot under the crossbar — knocking a Gatorade bottle off the top of the net.
This all happened about two weeks after coach Dan Bylsma said March 10 there was "no change" to Crosby's status since he was hit in the head Jan. 1 during the Winter Classic by then-Washington forward David Steckel and struck from behind four days later by Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman.
Two days ago, on his way into the Penguins' changing room at Consol Energy Center, Crosby spied a reporter and displayed his familiar deadpan playfulness.
"Didn't recognize you," he said.
He smiled politely, nodded his head — as he normally does — and disappeared behind a door.
It seems likely he'll be coming out to play again soon.
Then and now
The Penguins were set to play at Montreal on Jan. 6 when they learned center Sidney Crosby, the NHL's leaders in goals (32) and points (66) had been diagnosed with a concussion. He hasn't played since, though his return for the Stanley Cup playoffs appears likely. Here is a comparison of the Penguins' league rankings at the time of Crosby's diagnosis and through Saturday:
Wins: 26 on Jan. 6 (tied 1st in NHL); 44 now (tied 2nd)
Points: 55 (tied 2nd); 96 (tied 3rd)
Goals for: 135 (3rd); 208 (tied 10th)
Goals against: 95 (3rd); 179 (6th)
Power play: 17.3 percent (17th); 16 percent (19th)
Penalty kill: 87.2 percent (2nd); 86.2 percent (1st)
Source: Penguins media relations; NHL