Sidney Crosby made his highly anticipated return on Saturday.
An optional practice.
That was limited in duration.
And had about as much contact as a Sadie Hawkins dance.
But he was on the ice, doing whatever he can to recover from a suspected head injury.
And considering how rotten the previous four days have been for the Penguins, seeing their captain darting, surging and flying with purpose on their practice rink in Cranberry provided a much-needed boost for a squad that is one loss away from its season coming to an abrupt end.
“Sid’s Sid,” Pittsburgh Penguins forward Jeff Carter said. “He’s a leader on and off the ice. He’s a calming presence in the room.
“We’ll see what happens.”
What has failed to happen to this point is a fourth win by the Penguins in their best-of-seven first-round playoff series with the New York Rangers.
They had staked a 3-1 series lead before dropping identical 5-3 losses in Game 5 (on Wednesday at New York’s Madison Square Garden) and Game 6 (on Friday at PPG Paints Arena).
In addition to the score, one common theme in each of those results was the absence of Crosby. Injured midway through Game 5, Crosby did not finish that contest and was a scratch for Game 6.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan stopped short of offering any kind of status for Crosby with regards to Sunday’s Game 7 in New York and labeled him “day to day.”
Sullivan did, however, offer a somewhat uncharacteristically upbeat assessment of what Crosby’s presence in Saturday’s practice meant.
“He’s in good spirits,” Sullivan said. “He’s in a good place. He’s doing his very best to get himself back and ready as quickly as he can. We’ll see how that process goes. I think anytime he’s on the ice, I think it’s good for our team, it’s good for our players, it’s good for our morale, and that’s certainly a boost for our guys.”
Presumably, that optimism can be applied to ailing goaltender Tristan Jarry and forward Rickard Rakell, as well, considering both also participated in Saturday’s practice.
Jarry, who has been sidelined since suffering a right foot injury April 14, appeared to handle most of the shots in practice, while reserve goaltenders Alex D’Orio and Louis Domingue — the latter of whom has played in all six games so far this series — were primarily spectators.
Rakell has not played since suffering a suspected head injury in Game 1 on May 3.
Sullivan also deemed Jarry and Rakell “day to day.”
The Penguins realize they are not guaranteed any more days past Sunday. That gravity is what makes a seven-game series appealing, particularly to the participants.
“It can be a bit of an emotional roller coaster,” Sullivan said. “There’s highs and lows, there’s ups and downs, there’s successes and disappointments. That’s the nature of playoff hockey. One of the challenges of going through it is trying to make sure that good or bad, you (have) the ability to hit the reset button and just get back to work and stay in the moment. There’s a reason it’s seven games. It’s the first team to win four. That’s where we’re at.
“Obviously, we were disappointed after (Friday) night. We thought we had a pretty solid effort. It didn’t go our way. But we’ve got to be able to move by it. We’ve got to get excited about the opportunity that we have in front of us.”
The Penguins profess optimism over their chances in Game 7.
A skeptic could suggest that’s false bravado. And a glass-half-full type might be buoyed by the incremental progress of Crosby, Jarry and Rakell.
No matter how that sentiment is generated, it’s simply a base requirement for success in a Game 7.
“It’s the only option,” defenseman Mike Matheson said after Game 6. “Either we feel sorry and come into the rink (Saturday) and kind of mope around and head off to New York. That doesn’t sound like a very fun option to me. I don’t think anybody in the dressing room feels that way. The only option is to just park what happened, regardless of how the games have gone.
“Game 7s are crazy games where anything can happen. It’s up to us to bring our best and see what happens.”
Notes: Injured forward Brian Boyle and defenseman Brian Dumoulin were absent from Saturday’s practice. Sullivan did not have an update on Boyle, who suffered an undisclosed injury during the first period of Game 6. Dumoulin has been sidelined since suffering an undisclosed ailment in Game 1. He continues to rehabilitate off the ice.