PITTSBURGH - As the Pittsburgh Penguins prepare to take on the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, one question is on everyone's mind. Will injured captain Sidney Crosby return to the ice for the Penguins?
Considering he still hasn't been cleared for contact, it would seem unlikely that Crosby, who missed 41 games with a concussion, will play. Coach Dan Bylsma has reiterated, countless times, the length of the recovery process, and that Crosby is still some steps away.
But the Lightning are preparing for him, one way or the other. Game 1 is on Wednesday.
"To me, he's playing, period," Lightning coach Guy Boucher told reporters in Tampa. "But we can't say if he's not [playing], they don't have a great team. They're a great team. With him, they're an amazing team. We're playing against a great or amazing team, so we have to be at our best."
The Penguins had their bouts with inconsistency during Crosby's absence, but in the regular season's final week, they turned it up. Of course, in their final three games, they did not play a single team that advanced to the postseason. But they did win them all, defeating the Devils, Islanders and Thrashers by scoring 13 goals combined.
Along the way, though, the focus was still on Crosby.
"We've said it before and continue to say it, he has a couple more steps to go in his rehabilitation before he can even think about returning to play," Bylsma said on Friday. "I don't know how fast that's going to happen, I don't know if that's going to happen. There's no way to even make a timetable. And considering that he has two more steps to go through, it would seem like anything in the immediate future is out of the question."
Neither team practiced on Monday, but the captain is bound to come up again on Tuesday, when the Penguins begin their Game 1 preparations. Despite missing half of the season, Crosby led the Penguins in goals (32) and points (66).
"Again, his interaction is with the doctors, not with the coaching staff or training staff," Bylsma said. "So he gets his daily activity and progression from somewhere else, not us."
The two teams split the season series, with home teams winning all four games.
Notes: Tampa Bay forward Martin St. Louis, a holdover from the 2004 team that won the Stanley Cup, had three goals and five points in the season series with Pittsburgh. ... Penguins defenseman Kris Letang led the team in assists with 42. ... For fans who cannot make it into home games, the Penguins will again provide the "Big Screen" across the street. In the parking lot of the Civic Arena, just north of the Consol Energy Center, will sit a high-definition screen that fans can watch.