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Crosby still not ready as Penguins visit Lightning

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 07:34 AM

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TAMPA -

The last time the biggest name in the National Hockey League – Sidney Crosby – played was against the Tampa Bay Lighting.

That was more than 10 months ago.

Crosby hasn't played since Jan. 5 because of post-concussion symptoms, and won't play tonight when the Lightning host the Pittsburgh Penguins.

For nearly a calendar year, Crosby Watch has been an everyday way of life for those following the Penguins. The questions are steady and relentless: Is there any new update on Crosby's status?

Status quo has been the standard answer from Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma. While the date for Crosby's return seems to be getting closer – he was cleared for contact a month ago – speculation is it could come any day now.

Just not tonight.

"I think it's extremely sad that such a good person and such a good individual has to live through what he is living now,'' said Lightning head coach Guy Boucher, who was part of the coaching staff in Rimouski when Crosby was in junior hockey.

"Knowing how much he loves the game, and while I think everybody loves the game, but he takes it to another level. So, I can just imagine what his life is without being able to play.''

Hard to imagine is just how good the Penguins will be once Crosby, a former league MVP and scoring champion as a teenager, does return.

Heading into tonight's matchup, the Penguins lead the Eastern Conference with 25 points. Pittsburgh was a difficult opponent for Tampa Bay in last season's first-round playoff meeting – the Lightning won in seven games – when the Penguins also were missing Evgeni Malkin.

Pittsburgh looks to be even stronger this season.

The Penguins rank sixth in the league with 3.0 goals per game and seventh in goals against at 2.28. The penalty kill tops the league at 94.2 percent and the power play is fifth at 20.5.

Offensively, forward James Neal ranks second in the league with 12 goals, while Malkin looks to be getting back to full strength after knee surgery in the spring. Defensively, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is 10-2-1 with a 1.96 goals against average, while defensemen – Paul Martin, Kris Letang, Zbynek Michalek and Brooks Orpik – might be the best top-four unit it the league.

All of this without Crosby – arguably the best player in the game who was on his way to a likely MVP season when he was hit in the head by Washington's David Steckel on Jan. 1 and checked into the boards by Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman in the next game, four days later.

"I didn't even think about (Crosby not playing), to be honest, because we look at them as one of the best teams in the league right now,'' Lightning center Steven Stamkos said.

"They are playing really well right now, they have some guys who have stepped up and played well. We are preparing like they are one of the top teams in the east, which they are, and for us to be in the game we are going to have to play solid defensively and that's the structure for us.''

The lineup Tampa Bay faces tonight has few weaknesses.

"They have defenseman who can move the puck, they have forwards that have speed and grit and they play a good team game,'' Lightning center Dominic Moore said. "Sidney or not, they are a good team. Their strength is in their team structure and they are a well-coached team.''

Boucher sees a formidable opponent.

"To me, when I look at their lineup, they have speed, they have grit, they have smarts on all four lines," Boucher said. "…They are well coached and probably have the most difficult defensemen to forecheck in the league and their goaltender is good. So, there are not many flaws in there.''

Even without the top player in the game in the lineup.

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