Sidney Crosby exchanged his no-contact white helmet for a black one at practice on Thursday, a subtle colour change that says the Pittsburgh Penguins superstar is only one step away from returning to the NHL.

Crosby had been participating in no-contact practices for almost a month before being cleared to take part in a full practice on Thursday morning.

He must still prove he can handle contact without any concussion-symptoms returning before he can play again in the NHL, but the Nova Scotian-born centre says he's "excited" about returning to the league.

"It's a good step in the right direction," Crosby said immediately after the 30-minute practice. "It's a big step ... it's a big one and we'll see how things go."

However, Crosby neither threw nor took any checks during the practice, which was focused on skating and shooting drills.

Crosby joked that he might have to incite his teammates into hitting him.

"When a guy comes back from injury you're usually a little hesitant. That's pretty normal. I might have to do something to get them to hit me. Maybe I'll have to bump them a little bit and get them going. As close to a game situation as we can get it," he told reporters.

Pittsburgh faces the Washington Capitals Thursday night but Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said there's no timetable yet for Crosby's return.

Unfortunately for Crosby, the Penguins are going into a stretch where they wouldn't normally have many full-contact practices, as they play six games in the next 10 days.

Crosby says before returning he must show he can handle all kinds of contact without the return of any of his concussion symptoms, such as headaches, dizziness, an inability to concentrate, sensitivity to loud noises or bright lights.

"Hockey-wise, it's just get hit," he said.

Crosby last played on Jan. 5 after taking two hard hits to the head from Capitals' David Steckel and the Lightning's Victor Hedman in successive games.

At that time, he was dominating the NHL -- 32 goals and 66 points in 41 games -- in a manner not seen since Wayne Gretzky's or Mario Lemieux's heydays.