CANONSBURG, Pa. — Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby plans to play Thursday against the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden, his first game in more than three months following a second lengthy bout with concussion-like symptoms.
Crosby, 24, went through an arduous workout with his teammates on Tuesday and got bumped around enough that he feels prepared for the grind that awaits over the final month of the regular season and beyond.
"You're not going to get hit to the extent that you would in a game," Crosby said. "But you've got to test that as best you can."
The dizziness and headaches that have plagued Crosby since the symptoms resurfaced in early December have abated. Crosby believes he's in better shape now than he was during a brief comeback from a 10-month layoff last fall, when he collected 12 points in eight games before heading back to the injured reserve.
"I'm just trying to make sure I progressed and remain symptom free," he said. "Everything's gone really well."
His arrival further bolsters hockey's hottest team. The Penguins have won nine straight and closed to within striking distance of the Eastern Conference-leading Rangers. Pittsburgh has been the NHL's best team since mid-January and while coach Dan Bylsma is eager to have Crosby's No. 87 back on the ice, he's planning to ease his captain back into the rotation.
Crosby will play on the third line with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy while being limited to about 15 minutes against the Rangers, though Bylsma will experiment putting Crosby with MVP candidate Evgeni Malkin and fellow center Jordan Staal when given an opportunity.
"It's a great step for him and our hockey team," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said. "He's been trying to get back for a while now, and I've always said, 'He's a hockey player who wants to play the game of hockey.' I know our team's been looking forward to having him back in our lineup."
While Bylsma allows it's difficult to keep a player like Crosby on the bench, putting him on a line with the workmanlike Cooke and Kennedy should keep Crosby from piling up too much ice time too quickly. The coach pointed out Crosby played around 20 minutes in each of his first three games back during his previous return. That's not really an option with the Penguins playing three times in four days.
The Penguins are assured of a playoff spot and while Pittsburgh is eager to catch New York and assure itself home ice through the playoffs, Bylsma also wants to use the next half-dozen games to experiment. That includes putting Crosby on the point during the power play and shifting him around to various spots.
"He'll need some games, and I think that was a goal for him to come back this season and not in the second and third game of the playoffs," Shero said. "He wanted to come back as soon as he could to get into the swing of playing hockey games again and get ready for the playoffs."
If Pittsburgh gets injured All-Star defenseman Kris Letang back from a concussion Thursday, it means the Penguins will be at full strength for just the second time this season."