PITTSBURGH -- For the last few weeks, the Pittsburgh Penguins worried about when their offence would come back. For the next few months, they'll concern themselves about another comeback -- Sidney Crosby's.
The Penguins' captain revealed Friday he experienced a setback during his lengthy recovery from the concussion that has sidelined him since early January. Because he did, it now seems unlikely he could have played during any round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Crosby stopped skating during the Penguins' off-day and game day practices more than a week ago after experiencing concussion-related symptoms, including headaches. Such symptoms are not uncommon, even for an athlete who hasn't played for months.
"This is an injury where, when you do have something, whether it's fogginess at times or whatever, you have to step back a little bit," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said.
Crosby, the NHL's leading scorer before he being injured while absorbing hard hits in successive games on Jan. 1 and 5, plans to be patient and let his body tell him when he can resume off-ice workouts. For now, he's not skating.
With 4 1-2 months remaining before the Penguins open training camp in mid-September, Crosby no longer must worry about whether he can return in time to resume what was the best season of his career.
"I've got to wait until I feel better before I can really start doing anything," Crosby said Friday as the playoff-eliminated Penguins packed up their belongings and headed into a longer-than-usual off-season. "Hopefully, it's not too long -- but as long as it takes to feel better and, hopefully, start training for next year."
Before the setback, Crosby was skating at nearly full speed, but had not yet been cleared for contact work in practice. That step was necessary before Crosby could begin working to get back into game-ready condition.
"The progression was going well, but I still wasn't ready," Crosby said.
For weeks, there was speculation about when Crosby might return. Now the Penguins know it won't be until next season.
"I think the great thing with Sid now is that he's got time on his hands," Shero said. "He has made significant progress. This is an injury, as we've all said from Day 1 with this, where he's not going to come back until he's 100 per cent. He had made lots of progress, but he wasn't there."
Crosby called the setback "frustrating," especially because he was detecting significant progress before it occurred.
"Hopefully, the next step doesn't have any hurdles and I can get ready for next season, as usual," he said.
Crosby's doctors, primarily Pittsburgh-based concussion specialist Michael "Micky" Collins, still expect "a full recovery," Shero said.
"It's just a matter of time, as we know, with these injuries," Shero said. "So that's the good news."
There was more -- former NHL scoring champion Evgeni Malkin, out since Feb. 5 after tearing two knee ligaments, appears to be making a full and speedy recovery.
Malkin resumed skating last week, although he wasn't close to being ready to practice. He also should be ready for the start of camp.
Penguins conditioning coach Mike Kadar will travel to Russia this summer to help monitor the 2009 Conn Smythe Trophy winner's recovery.
"They gave me a plan for the whole summer, and every day I have to work with my knee," Malkin said. "When I skated, it didn't feel bad. It felt pretty strong and I think I could have played this year."
Given the severity of his injury -- Malkin tore his right anterior and medial collateral ligaments -- the Penguins had no expectation that Malkin would play until next season.
Not surprisingly, losing two of the NHL's elite players -- and no one was better than Crosby this season before he was hurt -- severely diminished the Penguins' offence. They were one of the NHL's lowest-scoring teams after Crosby and Malkin left the lineup, and the lack of reliable goal scorers may have prematurely ended their playoff run.
After being a victory away from the conference semifinals, the Penguins scored only four goals during the three consecutive losses to the Lightning -- including the 1-0 loss at Consol Energy Center in Game 7. The Crosby-less power play also was dismal, converting at a rate of less than three per cent (1 of 35) during a series that couldn't have started much better or ended much worse.
This is the first time since 2006 the Penguins didn't advance into the second round of the playoffs.
Not that the discouraging end to the series diminished what the Penguins did with and without Crosby and Malkin. And, too, agitator Matt Cooke, who was suspended for the final 10 regular-season games and the playoff series for elbowing the Rangers' Ryan McDonagh in the head.
They won 49 games and accumulated 106 points, and were in the race for the Eastern Conference regular-season title until the season's last day. They successfully transformed themselves from a team that leaned on its top-tier offensive talent to one that primarily relied upon goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and four solid defencemen: Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek.
After Crosby piled up 66 points in 41 games -- 50 points during a 25-game scoring streak that was the NHL's longest in 18 years -- he looked to be a lock for the NHL's MVP award. By season's end, Fleury clearly was the Penguins' MVP after going 36-20-5 with a 2.32 goals-against average.
"I played more consistent than my previous years," Fleury said. "I'm happy with that, and the fact we were fighting for first place at the end was fun."
Not surprisingly, the Penguins' ability to remain one of the NHL's best-record teams amid the disruptive injuries resulted in coach Dan Bylsma being selected as one of three finalists for the Jack Adams Award.
They also successfully blended in a number of call-ups from their top farm club, including Mark Letestu, while displaying the kind of organizational depth they long lacked.
None of Pittsburgh's top-line talent is eligible for free agency, but salary cap concerns may prevent it from bringing back most of a crowded group of forwards that includes Craig Adams, Mike Rupp, Max Talbot, Pascal Dupuis, Arron Asham and Mike Comrie. Late-season pickup Alex Kovalev, a major disappointment, won't be back.
There's was much to like about the Penguins' season. Except for the injuries. Except for the way it ended. Except for the uncertainty about when exactly Crosby will return.
"Maybe they had a little bit of bad luck," Malkin said.