Sidney Crosby is offering no guarantees, no promises of when he'll be back in the Penguins lineup.
He has endured enough the past 14 months or so to understand the perils of making such a prediction.
He knows that there simply is too much that could go too wrong.
Nonetheless, Crosby -- who hasn't played since Dec. 5 because of a soft-tissue injury in his neck and concussion-like symptoms -- has made it clear that, barring a setback, he could be back in uniform as early as Sunday, when Boston will visit Consol Energy Center at 12:38 p.m.
- Matchup: Toronto Maple Leafs at Penguins, 7:38 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
- TV, radio: NBC Sports Network, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probably goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. James Reimer for Maple Leafs.
- Penguins: Are 10-1 in past 11 home games, including 5-4 shootout victory against Toronto Jan. 31. ... C Jordan Staal has a point in five consecutive games. ... Have allowed one goal in past 19 short-handed situations at Consol Energy Center.
- Maple Leafs: Are 8-3-3 against Atlantic Division opponents, including 2-0-1 against Penguins. ... LW Clarke MacArthur has scored team-high 14 goals on road. ... Have gone 5-7-1 in second game when playing on consecutive days.
- Hidden stat: Penguins have won 11 of past 12 games when they've opened the scoring.
He finally was cleared for contact Tuesday and got some during and after his team's practice. How Crosby deals with hitting, and being hit, will determine precisely when he will rejoin the lineup.
"I'm going to give myself days, for sure, of contact," he said. "If you look at our schedule, we have two more practices, I think, this week. [I could return] 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. I just want to make sure I get through these days fine."
He said he got a "decent amount" of practice-caliber contact Tuesday, but acknowledged that the hits exchanged by teammates don't usually replicate those delivered in games.
"I don't think you're ever going to get what you're going to get in a game," he said. "There's the odd time in practice where that may happen, but, as far as getting an elbow to the head or a shoulder to the face or something like that, it's not really going to happen in practice."
That doesn't mean that the Penguins were shy about testing Crosby once they learned he'd received clearance for contact.
"As soon as they knew I could get hit, I was getting a lot of bumps out there," he said, smiling. "The lineup was a dangerous place to be today. It's fun to be out there with them. Hopefully, it's a regular occurrence."
Unless the session Tuesday causes a problem for him, Crosby is expected to participate in the Penguins game-day skate this morning at Consol Energy Center, as they prepare to face Toronto tonight.
Coach Dan Bylsma noted that there are varying types and degrees of contact and said Crosby will be tested in settings simulating everything from typical game traffic to faceoff situations to one-on-one battles.
"Today was Day 1 of that," he said. "We'll see where we progress on Days 3, 4, 5, 6."
Day 6 would be Sunday, and returning that day would put an interesting bookend on Crosby's absence, because his most recent appearance was in a home game against the Bruins. That was his eighth game back after missing most of 2011 due to a concussion he received early in January of that year, most likely in a game against Washington Jan. 1 at Heinz Field. In that brief comeback earlier this season, Crosby had two goals and 10 assists.
Precisely when Crosby was injured in the first Boston game never has been established; a collision with teammate Chris Kunitz and a hit from Bruins center David Krejci are the most popular suspects.
Being away from the game for 10-plus months didn't seem to affect Crosby when he returned from his concussion Nov. 21 against the New York Islanders. He had two goals and two assists in a 5-0 victory. There's reason to believe that conditioning and rust won't necessarily be major problems when he returns this time, either.
"He's been skating real hard, for a number of days, if not weeks," Bylsma said.
In drills Tuesday, Crosby skated between Kunitz and James Neal, filling Evgeni Malkin's spot on what has been one of the NHL's most productive lines. That surely was a temporary arrangement -- Malkin was one of several players given a "maintenance day" to rest -- because the Kunitz-Malkin-Neal line has jelled so well.
"They've been unbelievable," Crosby said. "Every shift, they've created something. When you look at their line, they really do have a perfect mix of guys there to create stuff every shift. "I think depth is a big part of [the success of] our group, but they've led the way with the way they've played. They're a tough line to stop.
"I really think that when they're going like that, it doesn't matter who they're playing [against]. They're going to create stuff. That's a dangerous combination for teams to play against."
And if Crosby's recovery doesn't suffer a setback as this week moves along, it might be just a few days before Penguins opponents again have another one of those to worry about.
First Published March 7, 2012 5:00 AM