PITTSBURGH — Sidney Crosby all but said Saturday he’s not yet close to returning to the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup.
Crosby was cleared for full contact during practice on Oct. 13, and has worked out regularly since then. But the Penguins have been the NHL’s least-rested team since the season began — Saturday’s game against New Jersey was their 10th in 17 days — so they have had little time for practice.
Until the Penguins get some time off, Crosby will remain out with the concussion that has kept the NHL’s marquee player out of games since the first week of January.
“I think I need to get in some contact, more than just one bump in a morning skate,” said Crosby. “I think it’s got to be a few days of that. So whenever we can get some of those days together, and hopefully I respond well to that, then I’ll be much closer than I am right now.”
Pittsburgh’s first break of more than two days without a game will occur Oct. 30-Nov. 2. The following week, they will be off for five days from Nov. 6-10.
When Crosby finally feels he is ready — and has showed his doctors he hasn’t been affected by hitting — Crosby said he will be back. The opponent and the date, he said, won’t matter.
“It’s been a long time, so I’m just looking forward to whenever that is,” Crosby said.
The Penguins managed to get at least one point out of seven of their first nine games, even while being without Crosby since Jan. 5 and star centre Evgeni Malkin for all but three games. Defenceman Brooks Orpik (abdominal surgery) and forward Dustin Jeffrey (knee) also were out the first eight games before returning Thursday.
Malkin was ruled out of a fifth consecutive game Saturday due to right knee soreness. The former NHL scoring champion had surgery to repair two torn ligaments in the knee more than eight months ago.
“We’ve kind of dealt with this (injury situation) a little bit to start the year. I think we’ve handled it really well,” said Crosby. “Obviously the more guys we get healthy, the better. But I think whatever’s happened, we seem to respond really well. So I think we just want to keep playing the same way.”
James Neal has carried the Penguins offensively, accumulating six goals in the last six games and seven overall. By contrast, he scored only once after being traded to the Penguins by Dallas in late February.
“He’s got a great shot and he’s been using it,” Crosby said of Neal. “He’s been making every one count. When guys are out, other guys need to step up and he’s done a great job of that.”
Defenceman Kris Letang, who returned Saturday from a two-game suspension for boarding, also has been an offensive force with a goal and six assists in six games.
Crosby was expected to centre a line with Neal once he is healthy but, as well as Neal is playing, Crosby said he is reluctant to break up a successful unit.
“I’ve been watching him for a long time now, so I’ve got a pretty good idea of the way he plays,” said Crosby. “(I’d be) excited if that opportunity comes to play with him. But I think when a guy’s scoring like that, I don’t think you want to think about playing with him. Whoever he’s playing with, keep him with them and he’ll keep it going.”
Neal began the season on a line with Malkin and Steve Sullivan and, more recently, has played with Sullivan and veteran centre Richard Park.