Ryan Craig understands that things could have been different.
That if he hadn't injured his groin in an exhibition game against Columbus, he might not have had to wait until Feb. 10 to appear in his first NHL game this season.
That he might have cemented his place as a blue-collar forward with the Penguins last fall, rather than having to wait until their lineup was shredded by injuries to get an opportunity to play at this level again.
It would be easy for him to be sour about how things played out. Completely understandable, too.
But Craig, who has dressed for the Penguins' past four games, figures there's no point in focusing on what might have been, nothing to be gained by dwelling on the chance he lost when he was hurt Sept. 25 after impressing the coaching staff and front office with his preseason work.
"It was nice to get a couple of goals [in the preseason opener against Detroit] and feel comfortable," he said. "Then what happened, happened. That's in the past now.
"Obviously, with me coming to a new organization, I wanted to make a good first impression, and I hoped that I did that. Now, we're on to the second act."
How long Act II will last isn't clear. Although the Penguins have recalled the top seven scorers from their minor league team in Wilkes-Barre, they began sending bodies the other way Thursday when Tim Wallace was returned to the Baby Penguins.
The only Penguin who has been out of the mix lately who is sure to be back for the game Sunday in Chicago is left winger Matt Cooke, who has finished serving a four-game suspension, but Dustin Jeffrey doesn't seem to be too far away.
That means the players summoned from the American Hockey League are competing not only to win games for the Penguins, but to continue cashing NHL paychecks for as long as possible.
"I don't want to say that it's a 'tryout campaign' for players, but let's face it: When we do get players back, there are going to be players who have to be sent down," said assistant coach Tony Granato, who oversees the forwards.
"So the players who are playing best, the players who can find their niche and their role and do the things consistently that it takes to win will be here. And he is a guy who has a chance to do that."
Craig, signed as a free agent from Tampa Bay last summer, doesn't have the offensive flair of wingers like Brett Sterling and Nick Johnson, and he isn't a big-time point producer.
"I'm not flashy," he said. "I'm not going to wow you with anything. I just try to play my game and do a job."
That job doesn't generate many headlines or highlights. Craig grinds out a living along the boards and in high-traffic areas; if he didn't forecheck hard, play the body and take pucks to the net like he means it, his value would be limited, because he isn't going to be mistaken for a game-breaker.
"He's a pretty solid up-and-down winger," Granato said.
Craig, 29, has played 188 career games in the NHL, which is one clear edge he holds over most of the players brought up from Wilkes-Barre.
"He's a guy who's played in the league, so he's got some experience and knows what it takes to be successful in our league," Granato said. "He's a guy we knew in our minds that we could count on."
The Penguins could have been doing that long before now if Craig had made it through the preseason healthy. As it was, he dressed for the Baby Penguins' regular-season opener, then was forced to skip several games because of the groin problem.
"I played the first game against Hershey, then I missed the next three just because they kind of shut me down for two weeks, just to make sure it would get better," he said.
Craig signed a one-year contract with the Penguins last summer and will have a chance to test the free-agent market again this summer. How interested the Penguins will be in retaining him isn't known; Craig, while acknowledging that 2011-12 isn't a front-burner concern for him at the moment, sounds as if he would like to stay.
"It's a great organization," he said. "It's an organization that treats its players first class, with respect. I haven't thought beyond this year. I'm kind of focused on the present, and where we're going to be."
And not worry about where, if things had played out differently, he might have been a few months ago.
NOTES -- There was a scoring change on Tyler Kennedy's winning goal in the 3-2 overtime victory Wednesday against Colorado. An assist initially given to Kris Letang was switched to Jordan Staal. ... The Penguins had Thursday off.
For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Dave Molinari: firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published February 18, 2011 5:00 AM