Welcome to Pittsburgh Penguins News & Rumors, where the latest news surrounding the organization is on Sidney Crosby returning to practice after having wrist surgery. The Penguins’ star player was expected to miss a minimum of six weeks at the time he had the surgery back in September. But it appears he may be back to play for the black and gold sooner than expected. The preseason schedule has concluded for the Penguins, and the team now prepares for its regular-season opener game on Oct. 12 against the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

Crosby Returns to Practice & Positive COVID-19 Cases

Crosby returned to practice on Oct. 9, which brings into question when he will return to the lineup, as he seems to be progressing ahead of schedule from his wrist surgery. The center is still working his way back, so it is unlikely he will return for the home opening game this week against the Lightning. According to Rob Rossi of The Athletic, he was not a full participant in his first practice back.

“Crosby did not fully participate in Saturday’s practice. Aside from some playfully light pushing and shoving with defensemen Mike Matheson and Brian Dumoulin, each of whom let Crosby do the pushing and shoving, Crosby mostly worked on drills that tested his stamina and wrist strength and mobility. He has a few more steps to take, but coach Mike Sullivan said he anticipates Crosby will accompany the Penguins on their season-opening trip to Florida for games against the Lightning and Panthers. By going on those trips, Crosby would be able to get in at least two full practices and as many morning skates before the Penguins play their first home game at PPG Paints Arena on Oct. 16 against the Blackhawks” (from “Sidney Crosby’s next step and what it means for the Penguins” – by Rob Rossi, The Athletic, 10/9/21).

The Penguins will be without center Evgeni Malkin for the first several months of the season after he underwent knee surgery in the offseason, which makes Crosby’s return to health all the more vital for the organization. In addition to the two all-star centers, the Penguins have been without winger Jake Guentzel, who has been absent from the team after testing positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 3. Winger Zach Aston-Reese, who returned to practice on Oct. 9, tested positive for COVID-19 previously on Sept. 27.

According to Matt Vensel of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Aston-Reese and Guentzel are both vaccinated, and their positive COVID tests are considered breakthrough cases.

“Both players are “making progress,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan reported before Tuesday’s preseason game against the Buffalo Sabres at PPG Paints Arena. “Jake has been asymptomic to this point. So that’s a real positive from our standpoint,” he said after the morning skate. “Zach went through some symptoms. He’s feeling much better. But that’s part of the reason why Zach’s protocol process has been as long as it [has been]. We’ll see how it goes with Jake.” Guentzel and Aston-Reese will continue to be monitored by the team’s medical staff and will follow the protocols set forth by the league, the team said. Both players are fully vaccinated and are considered breakthrough cases. The team has not said if those two confirmed COVID cases are linked or isolated” (from “Penguins notes: Jake Guentzel, Zach Aston-Reese ‘making progress’ toward return after positive COVID tests” – by Matt Vensel, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 10/5/21).

The Penguins will look to get two significant players back in Crosby and Guentzel, who will likely both miss the first few games of the regular season. However, the team has had production this preseason from its veteran players when they have been in the lineup.

Penguins Core Remains Productive During Preseason

The Penguins had contributions from their other playmakers in their exhibition games. Expectations are high this season for winger Kasperi Kapanen, who finished with three goals and one assist in five games played during the preseason. Center Jeff Carter played in three exhibition games and had one goal as well as three assists. Winger Jason Zucker, who is motivated to have a better season in 2021-22, finished with one goal and two assists in three preseason games played. Winger Bryan Rust, who is usually paired on the top line with Crosby and Guentzel, totaled one goal and three assists in three exhibition games played.

Crosby, defenseman Kris Letang and Malkin have been the backbone of the franchise for over a decade, but the Penguins have a number of players who can contribute consistent offensive production in Carter, Guentzel, Kapanen, Rust and Zucker. Guentzel did not have a good postseason last year and is looking to put that behind him with a strong season in 2021-22. Continuing to play with one of the all-time great players in Crosby will only help him further develop his game.

The general consensus among many writers who cover the NHL is that the Penguins may regress further this season in the competitive Metropolitan Division due to their lack of postseason success since winning the Stanley Cup in back-to-back seasons during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons. However, with their veteran presence, the team will likely be in the mix for a playoff spot once again. The team will be missing one of their key contributors in Malkin for a good portion of the first half of the season, but the Penguins have several players who can keep the team competitive in 2021-22.

This article first appeared on The Hockey Writers and was syndicated with permission.

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