PITTSBURGH – Sidney Crosby knelt on the ice at the Consol Center, completely gassed, a smile spread across his face.
Clearly, it felt good to be back at work.
The former MVP skated alongside his Pittsburgh Penguin teammates for about an hour on Saturday as the club opened training camp. Crosby took face-offs. He rushed end-to-end. He avoided a playful squirt from a water bottle by coach Dan Bylsma. He pushed himself.
"I went as hard as I possibly could out there," Crosby said.
Other than a white helmet indicating he wasn't to be touched and the rousing ovation he received when his familiar No. 87 jersey came out of the tunnel and onto the bench, Crosby blended right in, which is just the way he wants it.
The last nine months have been difficult for Crosby as he's slowly, painfully recovered from concussion-like symptoms. Though he said earlier this month it's "likely" he'll play at some point this season, Crosby remains reluctant to put any sort of timetable on his return.
"I want to get back," he said. "I'm doing everything in my power to get back out there, but there's necessary steps to take and I'm going to make sure I do that."
Crosby plans to participate in every practice during camp except scrimmages, but allows he'll be cautious. His symptoms resurfaced while training in Canada this summer when he reached 90 percent of his exertion level.
The 24-year-old refused to put a percentage on his workout Saturday, but it was obvious he was spent, dropping to his knees to stretch and gasping for breath at the end of more than one drill.
"Obviously it's fun to go out there and work hard and obviously it's never fun when you're tired ... at the same time I missed that," Crosby said. "I missed fatigue and having to battle through it."
Crosby didn't feel any ill effects while quickly adding it may take several days before he'll know for sure whether he's good to go.
Not that the Penguins are in a hurry to rush their superstar back. They almost made it to the second round of the playoffs a year ago without Crosby and fellow All-Star Evgeni Malkin, who missed the second half of the year with a knee injury.
Malkin is healthy and appeared to be in fantastic shape during a brief scrimmage, scoring on a penalty shot and then assisting on another goal while playing alongside Steve Sullivan and Tyler Kennedy.
The Russian, who said his timing felt "awesome" in his first real action since February, gives the Penguins some needed firepower. His presence alone should be enough to keep the team afloat until Crosby is OK'd to play.
Crosby was playing arguably the best hockey of his career before taking shots to the head in successive games against Washington and Tampa Bay last January. Though doctors are optimistic he'll make a full recovery, they're not taking any chances.
Neither are the Penguins. Bylsma will welcome Crosby back whenever he's cleared. If it's not until 2012, so what? The season is long and Crosby's long-term health is the team's biggest concern.
"He wants to get back and get to a high level and help our team be a team that competes for the Stanley Cup," Bylsma said.
Crosby's teammates can sense his frustration. They also understand he's no savior. Provided they stay healthy, they're plenty loaded even if he doesn't play.
The anxiety over Crosby's health is greater outside the locker room than it is inside. They know he wants to play. They also know there's no sense in pushing it.
"It's really out of our control," Jordan Staal said. "There's not much you can do. You can focus on what you need to do and what this team needs to do to get ready with or without Sid. Obviously we'd love to have him back but he needs to take his time and he'll do the right thing when he's ready to play."
Though Crosby has worked with a team of doctors during his recovery, he insists the decision on when he can start full-contact practices will come from Pittsburgh team physician Dr. Charles Burke.
"At the end of the day he's the one that's got to clear me to play," Crosby said. "There's constant communication and everyone will be well aware of everything before each step is made."