Penguins vs. Lightning Preview

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TAMPA, FL (AP) - Sidney Crosby will be on the ice with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday - just not when it counts.

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The visiting Penguins could get an inspirational lift with their star expected to take part in the morning skate prior to a potential first-round playoff preview against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Out with a concussion since an 8-1 home win over Tampa Bay on Jan. 5, Crosby was cleared to return for morning skates on gamedays but is not ready to participate in full practices. Crosby began individual workouts March 14 and has reported no setbacks.

According to NHL odds and oddsmakers from online sports book have made the Lightning -130 money line favorites for Thursday's game against the Penguins. Current NHL Public Betting Information shows that 60% of more than 158 bets for this game have been placed on the Penguins +120.

The Penguins (45-24-8) are 19-12-5 without their captain.

"It's a natural return for his progression here. His rehab has been ongoing," general manager Ray Shero said. "He's doing well with it, but at the same time, as a manager, I have no expectations of him coming back and playing in the regular season. That's not going to happen."

Still Pittsburgh's leading scorer with 32 goals and 66 points, Crosby hopes to return for the first round of the playoffs. That could be against Tampa Bay (41-24-11), fifth in the Eastern Conference and five points behind the fourth-place Penguins.

The Lightning, who have won two in a row following a four-game skid, see the value in this potential playoff preview even without Crosby.

"We know that we've got a good chance of playing each other, so we'll definitely learn from each other," said Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier, who has four goals and six assists over the last eight games.

"It's pretty close to playoff time. I'm sure it's going to be a pretty intense game."

After winning four straight by shootouts, Pittsburgh fell 5-2 to Philadelphia on Tuesday. The Penguins trail the East- and Atlantic Division-leading Flyers by four points with five games remaining.

"I don't think that we play hockey to win the division," Pittsburgh center Max Talbot said. "We play hockey to win in the playoffs and to get ready for them."

Pittsburgh looks to bounce back with a third consecutive win over the Lightning after losing 5-3 at Tampa on Oct. 27.

Chris Kunitz recorded his second career hat trick in January against the Lightning. Tyler Kennedy, who has three goals in five games, had one with an assist in that contest.

Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury, who allowed three more goals Tuesday than he did while winning his previous three starts, has lost two of three at Tampa.

Lightning star Steven Stamkos ranks among the league leaders with 44 goals, and he has one with three assists against the Penguins this season. He snapped a five-game point drought with an empty-netter and an assist as the Lightning moved closer to clinching their first playoff berth since 2007 with a 5-2 win over Ottawa on Tuesday.

Tampa Bay's nine goals in the last two games match its total during the previous four-game skid.

"We're comfortable with our game right now," Stamkos said. "Seems like we've got our confidence back. There's a lot of positives."

Dwayne Roloson, who snapped a four-game skid Tuesday, has a 5.40 goals-against average while losing his last four starts versus Pittsburgh.

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