- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2011

PITTSBURGH — As the Pittsburgh Penguins huddled around center ice to begin the morning skate Thursday, an announcement from coach Dan Bylsma led to every player tapping his stick on the ice in celebration.

Finally, after months of waiting, Sidney Crosby had been cleared to take contact in practice — a major step in his return from a concussion suffered last January.

“I’m cleared for full contact,” a relieved Crosby said. “It’s a good step in the right direction, and we’ll see how it goes the next little bit.”

Bylsma seemed delighted in announcing that Crosby had been cleared to take contact, in practice only. The 24-year-old isn’t sure when he’ll be able to play in a game, and the Penguins aren’t making an official statement on that either.

“I’m not going to give you a timetable and I’m not going to make one right now,” said Bylsma, adding that he might have to adjust practices during a grueling October stretch to give Crosby chances to take contact.

Naturally, it seems to be a question of which teammates will be willing to actually hit Crosby, given that he hasn’t played since early January and is considered the face of not only the franchise but the NHL. Bylsma pointed to Ben Lovejoy and said he’s not concerned about that — and Crosby hopes it’s not an issue.

“When a guy’s coming back from an injury or anything like that, usually you’re a little hesitant. That’s pretty normal,” he said. “But I might have to do something to get them to hit me. I might have to bump them a little bit to get them going.”

Crosby might have to nudge teammates to start treating him like normal again, but players seemed downright giddy about having him and Evgeni Malkin back. The Penguins have gone 20-11-5 without both their stars since last February, but having both raises this team to an entirely different level.

“To get him back, it’ll be awesome. Who knows when it’s going to be, but one of the best players in the world,” defenseman Deryk Engelland said. “He’s a lot of fun to watch and he creates a lot. So I can’t wait for him to come back.”

Young center Joe Vitale has been one of the Penguins‘ pleasant surprises in the wake of the injuries to Crosby and Malkin. And while he has relished the opportunity Bylsma gave him, he noted that “those guys are irreplaceable — obviously.” Especially Crosby, whom Vitale complimented for setting the “standard for execution” in games and practice.

“Obviously a player like that can only help your team,” Vitale said. “For him to be starting contact and kind of getting back hitting, a lot of guys are really, really excited.”

That was more than obvious Thursday at Consol Energy Center as the Penguins prepared to face the Capitals. And while Crosby playing is what everyone around the league is waiting for, this day is one to celebrate.

“It’s a big step,” Crosby said. “But we’ll see how things go.”