NEW YORK (AP) — Sidney Crosby is stepping back into the Pittsburgh Penguins' lineup, back into the thick of a playoff race and back into the NHL spotlight with the hope that his concussion troubles are behind him for good.
Of course, that was also his feeling in November when he made his first comeback from a head injury that has sidelined him since early January 2011.
Crosby skated with his teammates Thursday morning in preparation for that night's game with the New York Rangers, who are atop the Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division — six points ahead of the Penguins. The Pittsburgh captain has been limited to eight games this season because of a recurrence of concussion symptoms that cut his season way short a year ago.
Crosby has been out since Dec. 5, missing 40 games this season.
"I don't expect to get hit more than I did prior," Crosby said. "I feel like I was always kind of tested physically before I had a concussion, so I don't expect it to be any different."
He also doesn't figure to go at half-speed or try to avoid contact. Crosby isn't looking to have his ice time reduced too much, and he doesn't want to miss any of Pittsburgh's final 14 games as the Penguins try to catch the Rangers.
"You've got to play the same way, whether you've gone through this before or you didn't," the 24-year-old team said. "The more you hesitate in a game, the more your chance of getting hit. Your focus isn't there. When you hesitate, usually you're in trouble. That's why you practice hard and test yourself and make sure you're ready. I'm more than confident in that."
Crosby made quite a splash in his season debut Nov. 21 when he had two goals — including the game-winner — and added two assists in the Penguins' 5-0 home victory over the New York Islanders. He had 10 points in eight games and recorded at least one point in five contests before getting hurt again.
"Tonight and moving forward, I don't expect to be where I was 14 months ago," Crosby said. "I expect to be a pretty good hockey player, do things and contribute, get a better idea of where I'm at once I start playing games. I'm not going out there just trying to kill time."
He is jumping right into a stretch in which the Penguins will visit three consecutive division rivals — the Rangers, New Jersey and Philadelphia — in a span of four days.
And the Penguins are getting healthy at just the right time. Defenseman Kris Letang also is returning Thursday following a five-game absence because of concussion symptoms. Letang sat out 21 games earlier this season because of a concussion sustained Nov. 26 at Montreal.
"They've got a really good team, no doubt about that," Rangers forward Brandon Dubinsky said. "They are dangerous, but at the same time we're a really good team, too. This is definitely going to be an intense game right from the get-go as they all are against the Penguins, no matter who is playing.
"We're not thinking about who is in their lineup or who is not in their lineup because they are a dangerous team either way."
The Rangers will have to play a second straight game without No. 1 goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who is still feeling some effects of the flu. He took part in the morning skate but didn't feel well enough to play after spending two days in bed. Martin Biron, who beat Carolina on Tuesday in the opener of New York's seven-game homestand, will be back in the nets.
New York also will be without captain Ryan Callahan (bruised foot) and defenseman Michael Del Zotto (hip). Callahan has missed five of the past eight games. Del Zotto has sat out four of seven.
Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma has Crosby slated to join the third line alongside wingers Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, see time on the point on the power play and log about 15 minutes.
When Bylsma approached Crosby about which of the next three games he would pick to miss if he had to, the coach already knew the answer — none of them.
"It's a joke," Bylsma said. "He wouldn't sit out against the Devils; he wouldn't sit out against Philadelphia. There is no way. He doesn't need to play every game, either. He doesn't need to play 22 minutes tonight. He doesn't need to play every shift for our team. Yes, we've given it forethought; yes, we try to understand he's getting back into playing hockey for the next 14 games to get ready for the playoffs.
"There's been some consideration to that as to whose line he's on, how many minutes he's going to play. We'll make sure we're monitoring that as we go forward, whether it's game to game or even within a game. There really is no thought in my mind that he's not going to play all 14 games."
Crosby is joining a powerful team that entered Thursday on a nine-game winning streak. Although they are the team chasing the Rangers, there is no sense of urgency that No. 87 has to save the season.
"He didn't feel like the organization was in dire straits and he had to get back before he was 100 percent healthy," said Cooke, who was also a linemate of Crosby's in the past. "I think as teammates that's the best thing we've could've done for him.
"Who wouldn't want to play with the best player in the world? He creates so much stuff on his own, let alone if I can create some room for him in the offensive zone on the forecheck. I've just got to go out and do what I do best."
Bylsma laughed off any notion that it will be difficult to work Crosby back into a team that has been surging without him.
"Everyone wants to get Sidney Crosby back in our lineup," Bylsma said. "Everyone wants to get Sidney Crosby back on our power play and back in our mix. I think it's great, at this point in time, when you have 14 games.
"There's going to be some adjustment, adjustment in the lines, playing time. The power play is going to be different and look different. There's a significant amount of time to get some of those adjustments. If it's a problem, it's a good problem to have."
Rangers coach John Tortorella had no interest in discussing Crosby's return or the Penguins' hard charge at his team.
"We're worried about our club," he said tersely. "All we're concerned about is the New York Rangers, as always."