PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Sidney Crosby skates hard and fast into a corner, picks up a loose puck and fends off a check. Moments later, he's leading one of those up-ice rushes that look so effortless when he's out in front.
The scene is playing out numerous times during Pittsburgh Penguins practices, and it did so again Wednesday during a strenuous 75-minute session that left even the superbly conditioned Crosby sweating and a bit out of breath.
As usual, Crosby was in the middle of everything–the shooting drills, the endurance-building dashes from goal-line to goal-line, the odd-man rushes. Even if he weren't wearing the captain's C, it would be evident after a few minutes that he is the Penguins'leader, the player who makes everything go.
Except during games.
The Crosby Watch–the countdown to when the NHL's marquee player returns to game action–remains ongoing, with no definitive date in sight as he recovers from a concussion.
Asked about possible linemates when Crosby does return, coach Dan Bylsma said,“There's no timetable, no date yet for his return. We haven't gotten to that thought process yet.”
And Crosby hasn't reached the point yet where he can play.
Crosby, normally more than accommodating with the media, was a bit testy as he declined to talk with reporters, a possible sign he is growing weary of the constant when-will-he-be-back speculation. Crosby also may not talk following Thursday's practice or Friday's morning skate.
Crosby did have several leisurely and friendly chats with reporters about topics far removed from his status, but did not speak on the record.
On Monday, Crosby said it was a“possibility”he might play as early as Friday against the Dallas Stars, thereby triggering fan and media speculation his return was imminent. It was the first time this season that Crosby hadn't declined to rule himself out of the Penguins'next game.
But Crosby also said he wasn't counting out any other date on the Penguins'schedule–not just Nov. 11—a point he apparently believes was overlooked.
On Tuesday, additional conjecture that a Crosby return was near developed after the Penguins traded Mark Letestu to Columbus for a fourth-round draft pick and sent fellow centre Dustin Jeffrey to AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on a rehabilitation assignment.
Those moves came amid a 12-day stretch in which the Penguins are playing only twice, thereby giving Crosby considerably more practice time and contact than earlier in the season. Such contact was necessary before Crosby could be cleared medically to play.
Crosby hasn't been in a game since Jan. 5, when he absorbed the second of two punishing hits in a five-day span that left him with a concussion.
While Crosby said his conditioning is about as good as it can get, and he has absorbed a moderate amount of contact, he still hasn't received medical clearance to play. Until he does, he must be content with being Sidney Crosby only in practice.
During Wednesday's session, Crosby's hardest hit may have come from fellow star Evgeni Malkin while the Penguins captain was skating on a line with Matt Cooke and Pascal Dupuis. Bylsma said Crosby has been in quite a few defensive zone coverage situations around the net.
“He shows a great willingness to initiate and go to the net, look for that type of situation–one on one, two on one, three on two, expecting contact or not," Bylsma said. "Today, we had a five on five and he showed a willingness to go into the area where there's traffic, whether he got hit or not. He's shown that willingness for a while now.”
What neither Crosby nor the Penguins know for sure is when the former Art Ross Trophy and Hart Memorial Trophy winner can show it during game action.
Penguins forward Tyler Kennedy, out with a concussion since Oct. 16, also practised but is not likely to play Friday against Dallas or Saturday at Carolina.
The Penguins, meanwhile, returned to practice after going through team-building drills Monday night and Tuesday at the rural but upscale Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, about 110 kilometres from Pittsburgh.
For the first time, the training exercises included wives and girlfriends.
“You get to see players in different elements than just hockey, (get to see) who steps up and who are the leaders,”forward Steve Sullivan said.“It's pretty much the guys I expected to see.”