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The Pittsburgh Penguins and visiting Philadelphia Flyers, longtime rivals, will meet for the first time this season on Thursday night, but a key player from past meetings will be absent.

Penguins captain and top player Sidney Crosby tested positive for COVID-19 and has mild symptoms, coach Mike Sullivan announced Wednesday.

Crosby made his season debut in Pittsburgh’s most recent game, a 4-2 home loss Saturday against New Jersey, after wrist surgery in September.

“I’m sure he’s discouraged,” Sullivan said of Crosby. “He worked extremely hard to get to this point, and we were all so excited about getting him back in the fold. This puts another roadblock in front of it.

“But we’ll control what we can, and we’re hopeful that Sid will return soon.”

Top-pairing Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin also tested positive, joining fellow defensemen Marcus Pettersson and Chad Ruhwedel, both of whom tested positive Sunday.

Eight Penguins players have tested positive for COVID since the start of the season.

Also out for Pittsburgh is Bryan Rust, Crosby’s normal right winger on the top line. Rust has been out since the second game of the season because of a lower-body injury. He returned to practice Wednesday, but in a non-contact capacity.

Better news for the Penguins is that top defenseman Kris Letang, who was ill with COVID-19 and has missed four games, returned to practice Wednesday in full capacity. Sullivan did not dismiss the notion of Letang playing Thursday.

Early, the Penguins pushed through well despite missing an assortment of top players, but that might be catching up with them.

After opening with no regulation losses through five games, Pittsburgh has lost three straight.

“With (several) top guys out of your lineup, it’s hard to try to figure out exactly what you have,” general manager Ron Hextall told The Athletic.

The Flyers, by comparison, are peachy. They have won three of their past four games, including a 3-0 home victory Tuesday against Arizona.

One thing going well for Philadelphia is the play of goaltender Carter Hart, who had a 29-save shutout Tuesday.

Hart is coming off a season in which he struggled, including a career-low .877 save percentage. Through six games this season, he is at .928.

“I just think he’s battling extremely hard on all shots. … He seems (to be) in a real good place mentally,” Flyers coach Alain Vigneault said.

“Like every team in the NHL, you need goaltending to have success, and we’re getting it right now.”

Hart, in his fourth season but still just 23, downplayed his bounce-back, crediting the play of teammates in front of him and adding, “We’ve got a good group here, and we’re having fun.”

This will be the Flyers’ first game within the Metropolitan Division, with another one Saturday at Washington.

“You always want to play against those top teams and see where you’re at,” Philadelphia defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen said. “Can’t wait for the first battle of Pennsylvania.”

Flyers defenseman Ryan Ellis apparently will remain out Thursday. He has missed five games because of a lower-body injury and did not practice Wednesday.

–Field Level Media