Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin (71) tries to center the puck as Minnesota Wild defenseman Jeff Penner (51) defends during the first period of an NHL preseason hockey game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
PITTSBURGH, Pa. - The Sidney Crosby Watch, nearing its ninth month, continues in earnest in the Steel City.
The former MVP's every word on his health as he continues the slow recovery from concussion-like symptoms is parsed and dissected within an inch of its life. Every incremental step in the recovery process is met with what could best be described as giddy anxiousness.
How is he feeling? When will be he ready? Can he be the same player? Oh, and what's up with his white helmet?
The truth is, Crosby feels better each day. No, he still has no timetable on when he'll be back. Yes, he expects to play at a high level whenever he dons his iconic No. 87 jersey in a game.
As for the white helmet—the one he wears during practices to signal he hasn't been cleared for contact just yet—it's the same model helmet he's always used. The only difference is the colour. No fancy technology. No extra padding.
Crosby answers questions with his typical politeness. His teammates are just as accommodating. Though they have the most invested in Crosby's future, they're also the ones the least concerned about his status.
"It's really out of our control," Jordan Staal said. "There's not much you can do. You can focus on what you need to do and what this team needs to do to get ready with or without Sid. Obviously we'd love to have him back but he needs to take his time and he'll do the right thing when he's ready to play."
Whether he's ready in a week, a month or a year, it doesn't matter. With or without Crosby, the expectations don't change.
Especially now that "Geno" is back.
Lost in the furor over Crosby's status the last nine months has been the quiet comeback by all-star centre Evgeni Malkin, who missed the second half of last season with a knee injury.
While the hockey world spent the summer agonizing over any bit of news from Crosby, Malkin went about the business of getting back to basics.
He worked on his conditioning. He worked on his discipline and he worked on regaining some of the explosiveness that has allowed him to play Scottie Pippen to Crosby's Michael Jordan since the 25-year-old Russian broke into the league in 2006.
By all accounts, those days are back.
Malkin was so dominant during his first two exhibition games—scoring a goal in each—that the rust already appears to be gone.
"You see what he brings to the lineup when he is out there," coach Dan Bylsma said. "When he is on the ice, he is a dominant player. He controls the puck and he's a tough player to deal with his speed, and he can be a physical player."
One eager to put a pair of disappointing seasons—by Malkin's standards anyway—behind him. Even before the balky knee cut his year short after playing in 43 games he wasn't quite the same player who tallied over 100 points in 2007-08 and 2008-09.
His defence, normally reliable if not exactly remarkable, slipped considerably. He posted a career-worst minus-4 plus/minus ratio and seemed to be backsliding while Crosby was in the midst of a career year before sustaining a pair of head shots in January that put his career in jeopardy.
With both Crosby and Malkin sidelined, the Penguins valiantly grinded their way to 106 points and a No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, but let a two-game lead slip in the opening round get away while falling to Tampa Bay in seven games.
Bylsma earned Coach of the Year honours for giving his team a defensive makeover in mid-season. He's proud of the way his team kept scrapping but is hoping the goals will be easier to come by with Malkin out there doing his thing.
Malkin's mere presence should free things up for whomever is put on his line, and the Penguins believe they have some firepower on each of their top three lines.
Staal, himself limited by injuries last year, scored twice in an exhibition win over Chicago. Tyler Kennedy appears comfortable finding the gaps created when a defence swarms to Malkin.
Even enforcer Matt Cooke is looking to get in on the act. Known for making his living with his physical play, Cooke has pledged to become a more refined product this year. He looked like it during the preseason, scoring on a nifty deflection against the Blackhawks.
That doesn't mean Cooke isn't going to hit someone. It means it's no longer the first thing on his mind when he hops over the boards.
"At this point and time in my career I'm ready to let that go and play a different way," he said. "Thirteen years of playing guys physical, I think they still think I'm going to hit them and maybe I can use that to my advantage."
The Penguins view their time spent without their two superstars as a teaching moment. Their defence got better. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury posted the lowest goals against average of his career, even if he struggled in the final three games against the Lightning.
Getting over the loss wasn't easy. Fleury joked he tried to avoid the NHL Network when he could so he wouldn't have to worry about catching a glimpse of a replay of the 1-0 loss in Game 7.
"It was disappointing, sure, but you have to move on," Fleury said. "It was tough last year doing what we did but we think it can make us better."
With or without Crosby. Until the game's best player returns, Malkin thinks he can do a decent job filling in.
"I think I'm stronger every game," said Malkin. "I know I'm coming back after a long time (off) but every game I feel better and my knee is pretty strong now, and I hope every game it gets better and better."