Penguins’ Crosby cleared for contact

PITTSBURGH — Sidney Crosby’s head is clear. The superstar’s return, however, remains murky.

The Pittsburgh Penguins captain participated in his first full practice since concussion-like symptoms resurfaced in December and there is growing optimism he’ll be back before the playoffs begin next month.

The ever-cautious Crosby insists there still is no timetable on when he’ll be cleared to play in a game, but he looked crisp while spending more than an hour on the Consol Energy Center ice.

“It’s a good step,” Crosby said. “Hopefully, I can keep the momentum and get out there soon.”

Though the headaches and motion issues that have bothered him intermittently since a loss to Boston on Dec. 5 have subsided, Crosby has been through this drill too often over the last 14 months to get too excited.

The 24-year-old former MVP was spectacular in his return from a 10-month layoff in November, scoring twice in his season debut against the New York Islanders and collecting 12 points in eight games before he woke up with an all-too familiar feeling on Dec. 6.

During that initial comeback he was cleared for contact in early October and had to wait about six weeks before getting the OK to suit up for a game.

It may not take that long this time.

“I’m going to give myself days, for sure, of contact,” Crosby said. “If you look at our schedule, we have two more practices, I think, this week. No sooner than Sunday I would say but I’m not going to sit here and put a date on it. It would be total guesswork.”

Coach Dan Bylsma echoed Crosby’s sentiments, but made sure Crosby got bounced around during a lively practice session.

“It was man-on-man type stuff, some puck battles,” Bylsma said. “We had him get through today, we’ll see where we progress on day three, four, five and six.”

Crosby called the lineup “a dangerous place to be” and felt he “was getting a lot of bumps out there.”

It was a welcome feeling after three anxious months in which Crosby crisscrossed the country visiting specialists in hopes of getting a better handle on his health.

Tests conducted out in California in late January discovered a previously undiagnosed soft tissue injury in his neck that mimics a concussion. He took a shot as part of the treatment and claims the results have been largely positive.

“It’s nice to be symptom free, but it’s not as fulfilling until you get out there,” Crosby said. “I just want to make sure that I take the right steps here and get back out there soon.”

The Penguins have surged over the last two months even with Crosby watching from a suite well above the ice. Pittsburgh has a six-game winning streak going into Wednesday’s game against Toronto behind the play of MVP-candidate Evgeni Malkin and wingers Chris Kunitz and James Neal.

Kunitz has typically teamed with Crosby since arriving in Pittsburgh in 2009, but Crosby doesn’t expect Bylsma to break up arguably the league’s hottest line whenever he’s cleared to play.

“They have a perfect mix of guys there to create every shift,” Crosby said.

Crosby has been pushing himself during non-contact drills in recent weeks and enjoyed getting knocked around on Tuesday. Yet he knows nothing can replicate game action. All he can do is get prepared. After that, it’s up to chance.

Either way, he’s feeling better both on and off the ice. Considering what he’s gone through the last 14 months, that’s good news.

“It’s just one of those things where you get used to having things for so long you forget what normal is,” he said. “I feel like normal has been a lot more regularly.”

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