Penguins-Lightning Preview

Sidney Crosby will be on the ice with the Pittsburgh Penguins on

Thursday – just not when it counts.

The visiting Penguins could get an inspirational lift with their

star expected to take part in the morning skate prior to a

potential first-round playoff preview against the Tampa Bay

Lightning.

Out with a concussion since an 8-1 home win over Tampa Bay on

Jan. 5, Crosby was cleared to return for morning skates on gamedays

but is not ready to participate in full practices. Crosby began

individual workouts March 14 and has reported no setbacks.

The Penguins (45-24-8) are 19-12-5 without their captain.

“It’s a natural return for his progression here. His rehab has

been ongoing,” general manager Ray Shero said. “He’s doing well

with it, but at the same time, as a manager, I have no expectations

of him coming back and playing in the regular season. That’s not

going to happen.”

Still Pittsburgh’s leading scorer with 32 goals and 66 points,

Crosby hopes to return for the first round of the playoffs. That

could be against Tampa Bay (41-24-11), fifth in the Eastern

Conference and five points behind the fourth-place Penguins.

The Lightning, who have won two in a row following a four-game

skid, see the value in this potential playoff preview even without

Crosby.

“We know that we’ve got a good chance of playing each other, so

we’ll definitely learn from each other,” said Lightning captain

Vincent Lecavalier, who has four goals and six assists over the

last eight games.

“It’s pretty close to playoff time. I’m sure it’s going to be a

pretty intense game.”

After winning four straight by shootouts, Pittsburgh fell 5-2 to

Philadelphia on Tuesday. The Penguins trail the East- and Atlantic

Division-leading Flyers by four points with five games

remaining.

“I don’t think that we play hockey to win the division,”

Pittsburgh center Max Talbot said. “We play hockey to win in the

playoffs and to get ready for them.”

Pittsburgh looks to bounce back with a third consecutive win

over the Lightning after losing 5-3 at Tampa on Oct. 27.

Chris Kunitz recorded his second career hat trick in January

against the Lightning. Tyler Kennedy, who has three goals in five

games, had one with an assist in that contest.

Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury, who allowed three more goals

Tuesday than he did while winning his previous three starts, has

lost two of three at Tampa.

Lightning star Steven Stamkos ranks among the league leaders

with 44 goals, and he has one with three assists against the

Penguins this season. He snapped a five-game point drought with an

empty-netter and an assist as the Lightning moved closer to

clinching their first playoff berth since 2007 with a 5-2 win over

Ottawa on Tuesday.

Tampa Bay’s nine goals in the last two games match its total

during the previous four-game skid.

“We’re comfortable with our game right now,” Stamkos said.

“Seems like we’ve got our confidence back. There’s a lot of

positives.”

Dwayne Roloson, who snapped a four-game skid Tuesday, has a 5.40

goals-against average while losing his last four starts versus

Pittsburgh.