CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. -- He hit the ice on Friday morning, without the yellow noncontact jersey that injured Pittsburgh Penguins players wear if they're not to be hit. That was the first sign captain Sidney Crosby might be closing in on a return from his Game 3 concussion faster than many expected.
Crosby skated a few laps. He stood in the corner of the ice and set up teammates for shots as they skated in on the net. Then came a contact drill in that same corner that indicated he was all-in. Skating full speed up the ice, dishing the puck, getting it back, making a spin move toward the net, it was pretty clear there were no limitations to his game.
Technically, per Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, Crosby remains day-to-day. The plan is to see how he feels before Game 5 on Saturday (7:15 p.m. ET), but nobody is ruling anything out. Crosby looked good, even if there are certainly concerns from the outside that he might be rushing it a bit.
"Having gone through this, I'd like to think I'm pretty aware of my body at this point," he said in answering those concerns. "I understand the importance of making sure you're good before you come back. I have a lot of belief in our staff here. ... I trust them."
Four hours away, at Capitals practice, Alex Ovechkin was dropped to the third line. Or Lars Eller and Tom Wilson were promoted to Ovechkin's top line, if you're an optimist. Either way, as this series moves closer to its conclusion -- the Penguins lead 3-1 -- the focus is right back to the two players who received it from the start.
All eyes will be on Crosby to see if he plays in Saturday's Game 5. Then the focus shifts to Ovechkin, to see how he responds. There's no faulting Capitals coach Barry Trotz for making line changes in an attempt to spark his team, but moving Ovechkin down to line No. 3 is certainly a statement.
"I think it's just a situation where you want to switch up the lines and get better, I hope, and I hope it's going to work," Ovechkin told reporters in Washington, D.C. "I think just spread put the first three lines and see what happens out there."
It certainly worked for the Penguins last spring, putting Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel on separate lines. Now, if Trotz sticks with those lines, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ovechkin will each anchor a line.
Considering the way the Penguins have contained Ovechkin in this series, it's worth a shot. He's gone three consecutive games without a goal after scoring in Game 1. In large part because of the Penguins' commitment to shot-blocking, Ovechkin has just two shots in each of the last two games. He has 10 shots in the series. To give that some context, in the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs, he had nine shots in Game 2 alone.
Malkin knows Ovechkin well and senses frustration from the fellow Russian.
"Oh, yeah, of course," Malkin said, adding that Ovechkin plays as if he wants to score every game, and if he doesn't, he gets "frustrated."
"It's not just for him. I think every player, when you can't score, you start doing too much [thinking] ... you change your game," Malkin added.
Malkin suggested the solution is playing a simpler game, but then stopped himself.
"I try not to help him right now," he said. "Our D do a great job. We know he's a dangerous player."
So is Crosby, who looked every bit his dangerous self on Friday at practice. He was laughing, smiling, having a great time. It was quite a contrast to the last time we saw him on the ice with his team, slowly leaving Game 3 after the cross-check.
"It was fun," said Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. "Just to have him out there, cracking a few smiles and having fun playing hockey -- that's just fun to see."
It's setting up what could be a classic finish between these two rivals, the way it was drawn up in the first place.