Streaking Penguins surging into second half

The Pittsburgh Penguins milled quietly about their dressing room

deep inside Consol Energy Center on Monday, slowly getting back to

work following a welcomed few days off for the All-Star break.

As the players chatted about their current seven-game winning

streak, the spectacular play of center Evgeni Malkin and the

prospects of catching the New York Rangers for the Eastern

Conference lead, a familiar image flickered on a nearby TV. More

than one player stopped to watch.

There was Sidney Crosby, streaking down the ice against the New

York Islanders on Nov. 21, scoring in spectacular fashion.

As solid as the NHL’s hottest team has looked over the last two

weeks, the main question heading into the stretch remains the same

now as it did when the season began in October.

When is Sid the Kid coming back?

And while coach Dan Bylsma refuses to put a timetable on

Crosby’s return, there at least appears to be a sense of optimism

despite news over the weekend the 24-year-old superstar suffered a

neck injury last January that perhaps complicated his nearly

11-month recovery from a concussion.

Crosby skated on the Consol ice for the first time in more than

six weeks on Monday, joining fellow injured teammates Simon Despres

and Jordan Staal for a brief workout.

Bylsma said Crosby worked at a ”pretty good clip” during his

session, adding Pittsburgh’s captain was ”pretty excited” to be

back at work, even in a limited capacity.

At least it gave Crosby a respite from the latest round of drama

surrounding his comeback. The team acknowledged on Saturday that

neurological spine specialist Dr. Robert S. Bray in Los Angeles

discovered an unspecified neck injury that was ”fully

healed.”

An independent physician is studying the findings before the

team makes any sort of determination on Crosby’s next step.

Though the revelation about the game’s most famous player seemed

to overshadow the All-Star festivities, Crosby’s teammates took it

in stride.

”Anything that’s progressing for him to get healthy and getting

back to 100 percent and feeling like Sidney Crosby does is a

positive,” Pittsburgh forward Chris Kunitz said. ”If he’s skating

and doing things, that’s good for him as a person and that’s what

counts.”

Bylsma declined to get into specifics about Crosby’s condition

and prognosis pending a report from the independent physician,

saying only Crosby was ”nowhere” close to being cleared for

contact.

Crosby hasn’t played since the concussion-like symptoms

resurfaced following a loss to Boston on Dec. 5. He skated with his

teammates during a swing through Florida earlier this month but

hadn’t been on his home ice in 54 days.

He’s spent the last couple weeks visiting several specialists

hoping for answers, and though Bray’s findings were a surprise,

Crosby’s teammates don’t believe it’s a sign Crosby has no faith in

the team’s medical staff.

”I think that in any situation or any injury or any NHL player,

if you look long enough, hard enough you’d find something too,”

forward Matt Cooke said. ”No one doubted there was something

bugging Sid and if this was it, maybe they can move on with

it.”

At the moment, the Penguins are getting by just fine without the

2009 league MVP. Their seven-game run is the franchise’s longest

winning streak in 14 months and Malkin has stormed to the top of

the scoring race by playing arguably the best hockey of his

career.

Not bad for a team that looked on the brink of panic during a

six-game slide earlier this month.

”That’s how seasons go,” Kunitz said. ”Everybody goes through

injuries, highs and lows. I think it builds character in the locker

room.”

Though Crosby’s status remains a focal point, the Penguins

believe they can make a deep playoff run even if Crosby remains

sidelined.

Having the hottest player in hockey helps. Malkin leads the NHL

with 58 points, scoring nine goals during the winning streak.

Linemate James Neal has been nearly as hot, scoring six times to

move into second-place in the NHL in goals scored.

Their production has overshadowed a power outage on the other

three lines. Cooke hasn’t scored since Dec. 10, while Dupuis hasn’t

found the back of the net in more than a month.

”If (Malkin and Neal) want to keep scoring, I’m not going to

stop them,” Dupuis said. ”Everybody is chipping in when you’re

winning. But down the stretch some other guys than Evgeni Malkin

and James Neal need to score goals.”

Yet with Malkin and Neal healthy and playing well, the Penguins

are in much better position than they were a season ago, when they

struggled to score goals while Malkin and Crosby watched the season

fizzle out from the press box.

Crosby may remain there for awhile, but the Penguins are

optimistic they can avoid an early playoff exit.

”All of the things we want to get are fully in reach and we’ve

got to make sure we don’t look too far ahead and stay what’s at

task,” Cooke said. ”Guys are going to get healthy and that’s

going to help us out big time.”