The Penguins took full advantage of an October that saw them play 13 games in 24 days, earning 18 of a possible 26 points to lead the NHL standings.
Now, Pittsburgh hopes to take advantage of an early November schedule that’s as light as October’s was busy – this time to fine-tune their game and get healthy bodies back into their lineup.
The time off from games – four and five consecutive days this week and next, respectively – is giving the club more time to conduct detail-oriented practices, a rarity in its game-packed first month. It’s also giving the player whose presence is most sorely missed more of a chance to approximate game situations.
“We haven’t had a ton of time to practice, but the next little while there’ll be some opportunity,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “So it’ll probably be a bit more of a test to get some days in a row with some contact and some game situations.
“The more I can get those game situations in, the better. But I feel like each time we’ve done that, it’s gotten easier and easier.”
What hasn’t gotten any easier for Crosby is getting his teammates to test him with contact since he’s been cleared. But that’s not always a negative, he said.
“I can’t get hit every day – sometimes the guys aren’t trying to finish their checks, and I’m not purposely trying to go out there and get rocked, either. I’m just trying to make it as game-like as possible. If there are times when I don’t get hit, hopefully it’s because I’m avoiding it.”
And when Crosby does take contact, he wants that to approximate a game situation as much as possible, too.
“Sometimes you’re fighting for pucks, you’re battling in the corners, and you get hit when you don’t expect it,” he said. “You’re trying to handle the puck or look for someone; all that stuff’s much different than being prepared in a one-on-one battle.
“I want to avoid as much as I can but, when there’s drills for that or when that happens, it’s good to go through it. It’s a big step; I just want to make sure it goes well, however long that takes.”
With the Penguins’ next home game coming after these two practice-heavy weeks, many fans have that date – November 11 against the Dallas Stars – circled on their calendars for a possible Crosby return. Neither the player nor the organization, however, have started talking about timetables.
“It’s not something I want to get too far ahead of,” Crosby said. “I just want to make sure to make the most of that time.”
“He’s been practicing at a high level for a while, and I think if you watch him practice, you see speed and skill at a level many of us wish to ever get to,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “But you have to understand he’s still in the process of rehabbing and putting good days together and getting into those situations and physical contact.”
Still, Crosby said, practicing at a high level can only take his preparedness so far.
“I think [the conditioning] is as good as it’s going to get without playing in a game,” he said. “I feel like I’m in good shape, but it’s not game shape. You can’t get that until you play.”
Also making progress on the comeback trail from his own concussion is winger Tyler Kennedy, who went on IR October 17. Earlier this week, Kennedy rode an exercise bike, then skated on his own, then joined the team in practice without contact.
“I was getting headaches here and there and wasn’t feeling the greatest, but that’s all gone and hopefully I can make a step forward here in the next couple days,” he said. “Probably for a good five to seven days I’ve been feeling pretty good, and this is another step to get back to playing.”
Kennedy said he’s also benefited from Crosby’s experience. “Sid’s like a doctor when it comes to concussions right now,” he joked. “It’s nice to open up and talk to him, and I got some great insight.”
Forward Jordan Staal, who suffered a lower-body injury against the New York Islanders last week, is also progressing, participating in practices but taking it day-by-day as he sees how his injury reacts to the strain. Defenseman Kris Letang was in Thursday’s lineup in San Jose, after recovering from what Byslma called “bumps and bruises,” and even blueliner Zybnek Michalek, out four to six weeks with a broken finger, took the ice Thursday after the team’s morning skate.
For the Penguins, it’s a good sign that they’ve continued to have success despite a steady stream of injuries to key players. “We’ve been playing really well, consistent. From [goaltender] Marc [-Andre Fleury] all the way out, I think everyone’s contributed,” Crosby said. “We have a lot of depth and I think we’ve shown that.”
But they know there are areas where they can improve, and they’re hoping to take advantage of the light schedule to do just that.
“This week and next week, we get some time to work on some detail and some habits in our game that we don’t necessarily have,” Bylsma said, following the first of three practice days this week. “Some of them have to do with systemically; some of them are as small as net-front presence or a stick-on-puck drill. Today was speed and pace and getting up and down the ice, a little bit of conditioning, but the next two days will be detail-oriented.”
And, if they can add a player of Crosby’s caliber to the lineup sometime soon, all the better.
“With how we’ve had success without him – knowing how we need to play and how we can play – you’d think, with him, we’d be an even more dangerous team.”