PITTSBURGH - Assorted musings and commentary on the Pittsburgh Penguins:
Sidney Crosby gets on the ice before most team practices and looks great.
He skates with his usual speed, has that incredible puck-handling ability and can shoot the puck accurately at the smallest target.
What he lacks right now is clearance to engage in contact.
As the Penguins have said many times, there is no timetable.
But figure that if the approval for contact was given tomorrow, it would still be at least a week before Crosby would be ready for an actual game.
And that presumes no difficulty when he engages in whatever contact comes in practice.
Nobody knows when he'll be back and - more importantly - nobody knows how long he'll be able to stay when he does return.
There are days when media types hit the locker room and ask teammates about Crosby's possible return.
To a man, it's almost like the players flip a switch and recite an automatic answer. It goes something like this:
"It will be great to get him back. He's a big part of this hockey club, and we all know what he can do."
Part of this comes from the repetition of the questions and the answer. The players have been dealing with this since January of last year, when a concussion first knocked Crosby out of the lineup.
But it also seems like there's a been a shift in the way teammates view the Crosby situation.
There was always a great sense of optimism that when he came back, the Penguins would be whole again.
That concept was dashed when his comeback lasted just eight games until concussion symptoms sidelined him again.
Now the players don't know what to think.
If Crosby comes back, is the clock ticking? Is it just a matter of time before a hit during a game brings back the symptoms?
When Crosby's situation was being discussed last spring, defenseman Ben Lovejoy had the best observation.
He said that the players were mostly in the dark, but noted that one day they'd come to the rink and find out Crosby was finally good to go.
Lovejoy said that would be like Christmas morning.
The Penguins experienced that on Nov. 21, when Crosby came back for that night's home game against the New York Islanders.
They were riding high until the Dec. 7 announcement that Crosby would skip two upcoming road games because of concussion symptoms.
He hasn't played since then.
Santa usually doesn't come back to repossess gifts after they've been enjoyed for a few weeks.
Crosby has now missed two months. His work on the pre-practice sessions suggests he's getting better and could be back soon.
But how long will that last?
That's the nagging question as the Penguins battle nightly to get their spot in the playoffs.
There's only one Crosby, and only one player has the impact that he does.
But it was still a positive development to get Jordan Staal back in the lineup Saturday after a 15-game absence caused by a knee injury.
Staal was having one of his best seasons before a Jan. 6 knee-on-knee collision with former teammate Mike Rupp of the New York Rangers put him on injured reserve.
Some fans are down on Staal because he's not a big scorer. The Penguins passed on Jonathan Toews to select Staal in the 2006 draft.
Toews has developed into an excellent player for the Chicago Blackhawks, but don't sell Staal short.
He's an exceptional defensive player and a huge part of the penalty kill.
Championship teams need different kinds of players. You don't win with all goal scorers, and you don't win with all checkers.
The Penguins should have learned that when they were missing the playoffs in the 1980s despite having future Hall of Famers Mario Lemieux and Paul Coffey in the lineup.
They became a serious contender when Ron Francis was acquired to fill the role of No. 2 center and shutdown specialist.
After being the Penguins' iron man, Staal has had a run of injuries, which isn't his fault.
The top of his foot was cut by P.K. Subban's skate in a 2010 playoff series against Montreal. When he was recovering from that injury, an errant practice puck broke his hand.
The collision with Rupp was just the misfortune of running into an equally large player.
Having Staal productive and healthy will be vital down the stretch and in the postseason.