MONTREAL - There was an extra boost of energy at the Pittsburgh Penguins practice Monday with both Sidney Crosby and Jordal Staal taking drills on the ice.
Neither is ready to return to game action, but their presence at least allowed the Penguins to imagine having a full, healthy lineup some time before the end of an injury-plagued season.
"It was good to be out there," said Crosby. "This week's been pretty good.
"I feel like I'm getting there. I don't know the timeframe. I wish I did."
The Penguins, who lost 5-2 in New Jersey on Sunday, skated at the Bell Centre where they will face the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night. The Canadiens got the day off after splitting a pair of weekend afternoon games.
Crosby has played only eight games this season as he recovers from a neck injury, while Staal has missed 14 games with a bad knee. Rookie defenceman Simon Despres, who has missed 12 games with an injured knee, was also back skating with his teammates for the first time.
Coach Dan Bylsma felt that with Staal and Despres there, it was better to include Crosby in the main practice rather than have him skate on his own.
"It's not a change in his status, it's just that he would have been lonely by himself," Bylsma said of Crosby.
Crosby's status, or at least his frame of mind, has changed a lot in the last two weeks after two new rounds of tests by doctors showed his concussion symptoms likely came from a soft tissue injury in his neck. He was given an injection to treat swelling in the neck.
Crosby's health has been a daily drama since he suffered concussion symptoms after hits in consecutive games in early January, 2011. The Cole Harbour, N.S., native was leading the NHL with 66 points in 41 games but missed the rest of the season.
He returned on Nov. 21, picked up 12 points in eight games, and was sidelined again with similar symptoms.
But a visit to a specialist in Los Angeles, who found soft tissue damage, was confirmed in a follow-up examination by a doctor in Philadelphia. Now the focus has shifted from concussion symptoms to healing his neck.
"It's nice to go in and not be guessing," Crosby said. "The good news is seeing some progression, and with this stuff that's always what you're looking for.
"I feel like I've got better the last week or so and hopefully it keeps going the same way. I'm really paying attention to the work on my neck and I think that's a big cause of it. So, like I said before, just being able to focus on that and hopefully seeing improvement with that is nice."
Skating with the team, a sign that Crosby is close to a return to game action, won't be a regular occurrence quite yet, however.
"I'll be back (skating) by myself and doing the type of things injured guys usually do," he said.
"You play hockey because you love being part of the team and being around that type of atmosphere. When you're injured it's not like that. You're out there with one or two guys or you're on your own. It's nice to be with the group."
But when asked if he was symptom-free, he said: "No. As soon as I am hopefully I'll be out there. That's where I want to be."
Crosby took part in all the drills in what was a somewhat casual practice. It included a stretch where right-handers played left-handed and vice-versa, and ended with a penalty shot contest.
Bylsma expects Staal and Despres back within a week to 10 days, although Despres will likely be sent to AHL Wilkes-Barre.
On Crosby, Bylsma said: "There's a little more certainty in his injury situation and everybody likes that better than not knowing. To have an area identified and a treatment identified is a different mindset."
The 30-19-4 Penguins have managed to stay in playoff position despite their injuries. They also missed top defenceman Kris Letang for 21 games with a concussion, rearguard Zbynek Michalek missed 20 games, and Paul Martin was out for six in December. Forward Richard Park sat out 11 games in December.
And it hasn't stopped. Bylsma said forward Tyler Kennedy was sent back to Pittsburgh for tests on a lower body injury.
With key men out, the Penguns have seen centre Evgeni Malkin rise up with 61 points in 46 games,James Neal has 27 goals, and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is 9-1-0 in his last 10 starts.
"It shows the depth in our locker room and the amount of good payers we have," said Neal, adding that the team has adapted to playing without Crosby. "No one's worried about it.
"Sid will be back when Sid's ready. We've been through this process. It doesn't affect us. We wish the best for him. We're happy he's getting ready to get back. We're excited that he's skating with us."
Brooks Orpik said that even when Crosby can't play, he helps the team.
"It gives you hope,' he said. "That six game losing streak we had (from Dec. 29 to Jan. 11), he joined us on the road and just seeing him around the team lifted everyone up.
"I don't think it was any coincidence that we went on an eight-game winning streak after that."