Skating over the blue line, Sidney Crosby still finds himself pondering a little about what comes next.
That makes him just a mite envious of his Penguins teammates who have played all season and are performing heavily on instinct.
"They go in and they don't have to worry about stopping in the [defensive] zone," Crosby said. "They have to think about it, but it's becomes more [a habit]. I miss that. I miss it feeling automatic."
Only a well-trained eye could pick up on that rustiness. Crosby has been out most of the past 15 months because of concussion and neck problems, but he has stormed back in his latest, second comeback.
He enters the first-round playoff series against Philadelphia, beginning Wednesday at Consol Energy Center, with 25 points -- six goals and 19 assists -- over 14 games since returning to the lineup.
Where many might see an impressive average of 1.79 points a game in that month-long stretch, Crosby sees room for improvement, especially with goals.
"It's more of a timing thing for me," he said. "I want to make sure I take advantage of [scoring opportunities]. When you get to the playoffs, you're not going to get five, six a game. It could be two.
"I've been trying to focus on every little detail and make sure I improve. Sometimes it just takes time, but it hasn't been from a lack of effort. I knew coming in that it's a little tougher jumping in in March than it is jumping in in November. It's a different style. The games are different, faster-paced."
Crosby first returned to the lineup this season on Nov. 21, to great fanfare after he had been out since Jan. 5 -- more than 10 months spanning two NHL seasons. He had two goals, two assists in a 5-0 win at home against the New York Islanders. His numbers wilted a bit -- no goals, eight assists -- over the next seven games before recurring symptoms again forced him out of the lineup.
Back to watching. Back to waiting. Back to wondering when he would feel normal for good -- his version of normal being one of the best hockey players, if not the best, on the planet.
There were more specialists, more tests, more treatment. Crosby passed an ImPACT neurocognitive exam, but eventually a soft-tissue neck injury was diagnosed and treated, and his trouble with motion and headaches subsided.
The joy of being back on the ice, back in the fold with his teammates and now back in the playoffs after two years is evident.
A year ago, he had to watch as his teammates faltered in the first round against Tampa Bay, scoring just 14 goals and losing in seven games. It was during that series that he stopped skating after a setback with symptoms.
Although he tried not to show it, it drove Crosby bonkers.
"It's tough watching, period," he said. "But when you're in the playoffs ...
"There's no guarantee every year you're going to be in the playoffs. We're really fortunate. We have a good team. We've put ourselves in that position for five or six years. But the reality is, half the league isn't playing in the playoffs. You never know.
"When you're watching, that is tough. That's when everyone is going their hardest, and you want to be out there with them."
That was a low point of his ordeal, but not the lowest. That came weeks later.
"The time that sticks out for me is probably late summer," Crosby said. "I was really kind of in shock that I wasn't feeling where I thought I would be. I figured that I'd go through kind of a normal summer and be back playing the next year. That wasn't what happened.
"Knowing that I had missed all that time plus all the summer, I knew that just by doing the math I wasn't a month away with everything that I had missed. That's really tough."
It was compounded by questions. Everywhere, questions.
"It seemed like every time I went to the grocery store or anywhere I went, it was always, 'How's your head? How you doing?' " Crosby said. "It was hard to get away from thinking about it because it was something that everyone always brought up."
His respite came in spending time with his family. His summer lake home in Nova Scotia is close to his parents' home. And, when he was in Pittsburgh, it came from understanding teammates.
"I had a lot of people around me that supported me," he said. "My family was unbelievable and made it as good as it could have been considering the circumstances. All my teammates were awesome."
They talked to Crosby about everyday things -- anything but how he was feeling.
"All summer I was close to my family," he said. "Just to be able to hang out with them and not have to talk about it helped.
"My family knew. My teammates, the same thing. I came to the rink every day and we would talk about the game the night before or they would say, 'Let's go for dinner tonight.' It wasn't something that was a hot topic all the time. I know that they really went out of their way to make sure that everything was more normal."
Crosby, 24, has lived more and accomplished more than many people do in a lifetime. He has captained the Penguins to a Stanley Cup, won an NHL scoring title and league MVP award and shared a goal title. He scored a gold-medal-winning overtime goal for Canada at the 2010 Olympics.
This experience was altogether different.
"You always try to prepare for things," he said. "You think you're mentally tough, but until you go through things ... that's what helps you and makes you better.
"As hard as it seemed at certain points, I think it's something that you can learn from. I think I've always appreciated playing in the playoffs, but I'm sure I'll appreciate it a little more."
Game 1: 7:38 p.m. Wednesday, Consol Energy Center.
Game 2: 7:38 p.m. Friday, Consol Energy Center.
Game 3: 3:08 p.m. Sunday, Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia.
Game 4: April 18, 7:38 p.m., Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia.
Game 5 (if necessary): April 20, 7:38 p.m., Consol Energy Center.
Game 6 (if necessary): April 22, time and TV to be determined, Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia.
Game 7 (if necessary): April 24, time and TV to be determined, Consol Energy Center.
For 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 and Twitter @pgshelly. First Published April 10, 2012 6:00 PM