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October 18, 2011

NHL: Crosby cleared for contact

PITTSBURGH — Sidney Crosby has traded in his white helmet. There’s still no telling when the Pittsburgh Penguins star will be able to do the same with his practice jersey.

The former MVP’s comeback from concussion-like symptoms took a major step forward Thursday when he was cleared for contact by team doctors for the first time since being injured last January.

Crosby wore a black helmet like the rest of his teammates during a morning skate prior to Thursday night’s showdown with Washington. The 24-year-old had been wearing a white helmet during workouts to indicate he wasn’t to be touched.

While there were no major collisions, the simple change in headgear is another positive sign that the sport’s biggest star is close to returning.

“This is a good step in the right direction and we’ll see how it goes the next little bit,” he said.

How long that “next little bit” will last remains unclear. Crosby, as he’s done for the last 10 months, refused to put a timetable on when he’ll be ready to play.

Part of the problem is Pittsburgh’s cramped early season schedule. Thursday’s game is the team’s fifth in eight days and the next three weeks are nearly as busy, leaving little time for full-contact drills.

“I have to get hit at some point during practice but we’re playing so much it’s hard to get that right now,” Crosby said.

Coach Dan Bylsma says he may try to find some extra practice time for Crosby to help get him acclimated but added Crosby’s participation in nearly every drill during training camp means Crosby might not have that much further to go.

“He’s been with the line, he’s been in drills, he’s covered some drills that have contacted,” Bylsma said. “He was wearing a different color helmet but he’s been in those situations.”

While his teammates have done their best to protect their captain during practice, Crosby has admitted to some jostling at times with no recurrence of the symptoms that have sidelined him since take head shots in consecutive games in early January.

“Everything has gone really smooth,” Crosby said.

The question becomes who will be the first player to take it to the game’s best player. Bylsma said it will be up to Crosby to mix it up, but doesn’t think it will take long for the seven-year veteran to get a teammate’s attention.

“Sid’s the type of player that he instigates contact,” Bylsma said. “He’ll do something that will warrant that from a player. He’ll go out and do something. ... I think every training camp when Sid’s been healthy he’s always ended up in some kind of jostling where the ire’s gotten up on both guys and that’ll happen again because of the way Sidney competes.”

The team is in no rush to hurry him back. The Penguins are off to their best start since 1994-95, going 3-0-1 in their first four games.

Their play has taken some of the pressure off Crosby, who insists he’s not frustrated or anxious even as his return inches closer to reality.

“When you’ve waited this long, you just want to make sure you do everything right and it’s exciting if anything,” he said. “I don’t think it’s hard to be patient at this point. We’re getting closer and we just want to make sure I respond to everything well in the however next long it is.”

Kunitz signs new deal

The Penguins and forward Chris Kunitz have agreed on a two-year extension that will keep him with the club through the 2013-14 season.

The deal will pay the 32-year-old Kunitz $3.725 million a season. Kunitz is coming off an impressive 2010-11 season in which he recorded 23 goals and 25 assists in 66 games. He has one assist in four games for the Penguins this season.

Bylsma has praised Kunitz’s leadership on helping the Penguins thrive without Crosby.

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