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Sidney Crosby improving but return remains uncertain; James Neal out with concussion

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PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Lacing on hockey skates is going to have to wait. At this point, Sidney Crosby would settle for a meal that didn't require a straw.

The Pittsburgh Penguins star and his surgically repaired mouth remain on a liquid diet as he recovers from a broken jaw sustained in a win over the New York Islanders on March 30. The NHL's leading scorer remains sidelined indefinitely and has not been cleared to return to practice.

Crosby — sporting a handful of new teeth — spoke on Monday for the first time since taking a puck to the face in the first period against the Islanders when a slapshot from teammate Brooks Orpik was re-directed at Crosby's face. He crumpled to the ice immediately and spent two days in the hospital while doctors repaired his jaw and tried to minimize the damage.

"I felt it but I didn't see it," said Crosby, whose 56 points are tops in the league. "It was kind of a weird bounce and just one of those things that happen and having gone a week or however long it's been now, it's gotten better. I feel a lot better than I did after it happened."

Even if Crosby remains unsure when he'll be back on the ice. He expects to meet with doctors later this week but will not be a part of Pittsburgh's three-game road trip that begins on Tuesday in Carolina.

"We'll see how it heals and it will be a process here the next little bit but I'm not too worried about the teeth," Crosby said. "I'm worried about making sure I'm healed and hopefully that's sooner rather than later."

There has been no indication the concussion-like symptoms that sidelined Crosby for the better part of two seasons have returned. The only side effect he's concerned about at the moment is the inability to chew solid food.

Crosby has been living on milkshakes for the last nine days and admitted keeping weight on is "impossible."

"It hasn't been too enjoyable," he added with a laugh.

The Penguins do have the luxury of time. They clinched a playoff spot on Sunday night and barring an epic collapse will win the Atlantic Division with ease. That gives them more than three weeks to get healthy before the post-season begins, though the injured list continues to grow.

Forward James Neal did not practice on Monday and will miss Pittsburgh's road swing with a concussion. Neal took an elbow to the head from New York's Michael Del Zotto in the third period of a 2-1 shootout victory last Friday. He did not play the final 8 1/2 minutes of regulation or the overtime period.

Neal was battling for a puck near the New York net when Del Zotto — who had his back to Neal — struck Neal in the head. Del Zotto was not disciplined by the NHL office and Neal's teammates declined to speculate on whether the hit was dirty.

"I just know from my past experience, I know I'll be in that situation that Del Zotto was in," Orpik said. "You try to look at it from both sides. I was surprised there wasn't at least a hearing."

Coach Dan Bylsma says he has no feel for how long Neal will be out. Neal has 18 goals and 14 assists in 39 games. Chris Kunitz will replace Neal on the second line and be paired with reigning NHL MVP Evgeni Malkin and newly acquired forward Jarome Iginla.

"There's definitely a void on the ice, in the locker room (without Neal)," Kunitz said. "He's the kind of guy that will come around and chirp guys, make things a little lighter in the dressing room. On the ice, his ability to create space for himself and shoot a puck is something this team hasn't seen for awhile."

The news isn't quite so bad for defenceman Kris Letang, who skated with his teammates for the first since sustaining a lower body injury last month. Letang has missed Pittsburgh's last five games but could be ready sometime this week.

"I don't know, it'll be up to the coach," Letang said. "There's no rush to get back, but at the same time it's a short season. I want to start playing, being healthy and ready to go for the playoffs."

___

Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP

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