"Soon" could be synonymous with "Thursday" where Sidney Crosby is concerned.
The Penguins center Saturday confirmed he would not return to the lineup today for an afternoon game against Boston, but stressed he has not had any problems and remains close to playing.
"Hopefully, it's soon," he said.
Perhaps he will appear in the lights of near-Broadway when the Penguins play the Rangers Thursday in New York.
"That's soon, so we'll see," he said.
Crosby, 24, last played Dec. 5 and has played just eight games over the past 14-plus months because of problems related to a concussion and neck injury. He got clearance for contact Tuesday and had been skating before that.
He indicated Friday that he would give 24-hour notice when he was ready to play, so the new watch date moves to Wednesday.
In the interim, Crosby hopes to get more contact at practice. That appears to be the final step for him to reach the comfort level he needs to get back into a game. The Penguins have a scheduled day off Monday, and practices slated for Tuesday and Wednesday.
"A good amount of contact is the biggest test right now, so, hopefully, the next few days with the practices we have I can really get a good idea of where I'm at and go from there," Crosby said. "I've been really happy with the way I've felt leading up to this point."
He got in some hitting Tuesday, but then there were two light morning skates and a practice Thursday that was canceled -- Crosby skated with just two teammates that day. When he talked with team officials Saturday morning before practice, it was determined that the game today would be too soon, especially since little to no contact was due Saturday in practice.
"For about five days now, we've just kind of been looking at the schedule and what makes sense," coach Dan Bylsma said. "The good news is, he's felt good, but hasn't had a lot of quality practice time. This time of year and [with] our schedule, we haven't had a lot of quality practices. We said we wanted to put five, six, seven days of quality practice together."
What Crosby gets out of the next few days could be critical. The Atlantic Division showdown with the Rangers kicks off a road trip of three games in four days. After that, the Penguins play every other night for the remainder of the regular season, with the exception of two sets of back-to-back games. There are 15 games left.
But Crosby doesn't sound as if he will take any shortcuts.
"This is something you don't want to mess around with, especially this time of year when it's even more physical [in games] than ever," he said. "You've got to make sure everything's well adjusted and make sure that I've done the right things to prepare. That's basically what it comes down to."
How the forward lines will shake out when Crosby returns has been a hot topic, and one Bylsma hasn't shed a lot of light on. Crosby skated at practice Saturday on a fifth line with Eric Tangradi and Dustin Jeffrey, who have been scratched lately.
Crosby doesn't have any particular set of wingers in mind for his comeback.
"Everyone's playing really well at this point," he said. "It really doesn't matter to me. I just want to be back out there with them."
If Crosby is able to play Thursday, he'll be facing a Rangers team that, going into Sunday, led the NHL in hits with 2,003.
That road trip continues with afternoon games next weekend against Atlantic Division rivals New Jersey and Philadelphia, who are clawing for better playoff seeding. Philadelphia, both team and city, are known for being on the pointy side of hostile toward Crosby.
That, perhaps, is one reason he is holding out for more hitting in practice.
"I still think I need to get to another level as far as the extent of the physicality," he said.
Crosby is strongly built but rarely dishes out big hits. Instead, he employs contact to get an advantage in play along the boards and other puck battles. While he has got to get used to incorporating that into his game again, he doesn't miss being jolted.
"Probably giving a hit, not taking a hit," Crosby said, smiling. "I don't think it's something you really ever think about, but once you're involved in contact, it becomes an everyday thing and you just kind of get used to it. But, when it's gone, you realize how different the game is.
"You just get used to making plays and doing things while getting contact. But having gone through this process, you realize that there's an adjustment there, even more so with the injury that I have."
• Game: Penguins vs. Boston Bruins, Consol Energy Center.
• When: 12:38 p.m.
• TV: WPXI.
More, Page D-8
For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org , 412-263-1721 or Twitter @pgshelly First Published March 11, 2012 5:00 AM