CANONSBURG, Pa. - Sidney Crosby's smile betrays a jagged ridgeline of enamel along his bottom row of teeth, evidence of the extensive damage inflicted to Crosby's jaw by a wayward shot a month ago.
The Pittsburgh Penguins' captain has learned to deal with the dull ache left by multiple dental procedures. The cumbersome mask he'll be forced to wear whenever he returns is another matter entirely.
Crosby participated in non-contact drills Friday, his first practice with his teammates since breaking his jaw on March 30. Yet Crosby remains vague on when he'll be cleared to play and his status for next week's playoff opener remains uncertain.
"It's not really up to me to be honest with you," Crosby said. "It's something the (doctors) have to feel comfortable with the healing and that kind of thing. As soon as they say the word I'll be ready to go."
The Penguins have survived just fine despite missing Crosby for the final quarter of the season.
Pittsburgh heads into Saturday's regular season finale against Carolina with the NHL's Eastern Conference top seed already secure. Fueled by newcomers Brenden Morrow, Jossi Jokinen and Jarome Iginla — all acquired at the trade deadline — the Penguins have gone 7-4 in Crosby's absence, including losses this week to Buffalo and New Jersey in relatively meaningless games.
Watching his team thrive while he's relegated to wearing a suit and peering down on the ice from the box has been difficult. Yet it's also been a revelation of sorts. As vital as the NHL's second-leading scorer is to Pittsburgh's fortunes, Crosby knows the Penguins no longer need Crosby on the ice to be competitive.
"I think it's been a great transition," Crosby said. "I think we're playing good hockey when we want to be and I think we should be happy and know that we're ready to head into the playoffs."
Crosby managed to keep his weight up despite the layoff and the limitations on his diet brought on by the jaw problems. He appeared just fine while buzzing around with his teammates, particularly on the power play unit. Yet he was sure to avoid grinding things out in the corner or putting himself in a vulnerable position. He's currently sporting a large plastic shield over the jaw, and the unwieldy nature of his new gear has proven troublesome.
"You're definitely trying to find something that is going to protect you but at the same time you want to be able to see the puck and that kind of thing," Crosby said. "That's what I'm using right now but that might change depending on being able to adjust to it."
Coach Dan Bylsma, like Crosby, declined to pinpoint a target date for Crosby's familiar No. 87 to get back on the ice.
"It's good to have him in practice and a step to have him in practice in a non-contact way and have him out there with the group but there's not a timeline," Bylsma said.
The Penguins can afford to wait a little while longer. A scheduling conflict at Consol Energy Center means the team won't likely open the playoffs until Wednesday. That additional 24 hours could give Crosby's jaw another 24 hours to heal convince the doctors that he's out of any danger.
Though Crosby isn't quite ready to go, defenceman Paul Martin (hand) and forward James Neal (concussion) will play on Saturday against the Hurricanes. Martin has missed 12 games while Neal hasn't played since April 5 after taking an elbow to the head from New York Rangers defenceman Michael Del Zotto.
"Any time you miss time due to injury you want to get your feel back as quickly as possible when you start playing again," Neal said.
Crosby's absence will allow Bylsma to continue to tinker with Pittsburgh's lines trying to find the right combination. Crosby anchored the most productive line in hockey alongside Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis before getting hurt and the addition of so many new faces has forced Bylsma to get creative.
The only group that appears to be set is the third line, where Brandon Sutter, Matt Cooke and Morrow will give the Penguins some thump. The first, second and fourth lines remain very much a work in progress.
Yet there are worse problems to have. Though Crosby will sit out the regular season finale, barring a setback he's almost certain to play in the opening round. The Penguins will enter the post-season as the overwhelming favourite in the East. The pressure will only mount whenever Crosby laces up his skates. That's OK with the Penguins. That's the way they prefer it.
"I've never been in a dressing room that didn't expect to win a Cup," Murray said. "I think we know what lays ahead and when Sid's ready, we'll be ready to have him."