CANONSBURG, Pa. -- Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby plans to play on Thursday against the New York Rangers, his first game in more than three months following a second lengthy bout with concussion-like symptoms.
The 24-year-old 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.
NBC Sports Network added a national telecast of the game with Crosby's anticipated return.
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 themselves 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 defenseman Kris Letang back from a concussion on Thursday, it means the Penguins will be a full strength for just the second time this season. Crosby joked he doesn't want to talk about it, but the team's dressing room is burgeoning with optimism.
"We really like the feel we have here," forward James Neal said. "Especially if we're at full strength with Sid and (Letang)."
It will be hard for Crosby to top his previous return, when he scored twice and collected four points in a win over the New York Islanders on Nov. 21. Yet he's more relaxed this time around. He's become an expert on his condition and knowing what to expect has put him at ease.
"That first game was pretty overwhelming," Crosby said. "I'm going to try to pace myself a bit especially with the schedule. It's going to be (work) enough getting back into it."
The road has been tough enough already. Crosby's latest stint on injured reserve had him crisscrossing the continent trying to figure out why his symptoms returned. Tests revealed a previously undiagnosed soft tissue injury in the neck that mimics a concussion. He received an injection in late-January to help alleviate some of the problems and believes it produced the desired results.
"I saw some noticeable changes after that (treatment)," he said. "That part definitely feels better."
So did getting knocked around in practice. The Penguins worked for more than an hour on Tuesday, with Crosby right in the middle of it. He mixed it up during drills and bounced right back up following a not-so gentle nudge from defenseman Ben Lovejoy.
It's a good sign, though Crosby knows the hits will be much more violent when they're coming from guys in different colored jerseys, particularly this late in the season.
"The intensity and the importance of the games is a little bit higher," he said. "I'm sure there's going to be a feeling out process and see how things go."
Crosby was the best player in the world before taking head shots in consecutive games in January 2011 that forced him to sit out the rest of the 2010-11 season and the first six weeks of this season. Now, he may not even be the best player on his own team.
Malkin leads the league with 84 points and carried the team on his back in mid-January after a six-game slide threw the Penguins into disarray. The Russian is in the race for the Hart Trophy and his numbers this season are similar to Crosby's at his peak.
Considering the way last season ended -- with Crosby and Malkin both sidelined by injuries and the Penguins losing to Tampa Bay in seven games in the opening round of the playoffs -- Bylsma is only too happy to figure out how they work together over the coming months and see who really is the best player on the planet.
"I hope they fight it out for that title," he said with a laugh.