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Kovacevic: Pens' crash concussion course should pay off

| Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 9:58 p.m.
Penguins head trainer Chris Stewart helps center Evgeni Malkin after he was hit by Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson in the third period on Friday, Feb. 22, 2013, at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla  |  Tribune-Review
Penguins head trainer Chris Stewart helps center Evgeni Malkin after he was hit by Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson in the third period on Friday, Feb. 22, 2013, at Consol Energy Center. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review

The cold truth right now is that no one knows how much time Evgeni Malkin might miss.

The impact of his sickening slip, spin and slam into Consol Energy Center's unforgiving end boards Friday night, followed by that frightening stagger down the Penguins' runway, might be felt for a couple days, a couple weeks or much longer. All that could be culled Saturday from coach Dan Bylsma was that Malkin was "still being evaluated" and that it's "an ongoing process."

The Trib's Rob Rossi reported, based on multiple sources close to Malkin, that he was experiencing concussion symptoms, including severe headaches and some mild disorientation. But that, obviously, doesn't tell us much more about an actual prognosis.

Yeah, I know.

Not again, right?

Well here's what is certain: Malkin will not be in uniform Sunday night against the Lightning.

And in that alone, fans of this franchise that's forever been equally star-laden and star-crossed should take comfort that Malkin already is being handled infinitely more intelligently than Sidney Crosby was.

Lest anyone forget, in the aftermath of Crosby's crash to the ice in the 2011 Winter Classic, the Penguins:

• Sent him over the boards for the first shift of the next period, after which he was taken out of the game.

• Made him available to reporters in the Heinz Field news conference room, even though, as I could attest from a front-row view, Crosby was terribly out of sorts. He spoke of neck soreness.

• Had him on the ice for full practices on back-to-back days after the team's day off.

• Played him the next day - against the Lightning, wouldn't you know? - until a shove to the back of the head from Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman knocked Crosby out of a game for the second time in five nights.

• Brought him on the team flight later that night to Montreal, where he felt poorly enough - complaining of headaches and nausea - that he left the team the next morning and flew back to Pittsburgh.

• Described his condition upon his return as a "mild concussion," a term that's been laughed out of medical science, and predicted he'd miss "about a week."

• Didn't have his services again for 11 months.

I'm not here to revisit blame for all that. It would take all day, and it's old news, anyway.

But it's instructive to note the powerful differences with what we've seen this weekend: Malkin was taken right out of the game Friday, he wasn't made available to the media, he was ruled out of playing Sunday before the Saturday practice, he didn't come to Southpointe, and no one with the team offered anything resembling a quick diagnosis or prognosis.

Over-compensating for the embarrassment of the Crosby mess?

Yeah, probably. But who could blame Bylsma, GM Ray Shero and all concerned for waiting this time until they have as much information as possible before speaking, much less acting?

Give credit where due: Since Crosby, the Penguins have tripled their count of team doctors to three, including one with neurological pedigree, and one of those doctors is with the team at all times. That includes road games, as opposed to the long-standing and still-common practice of relying on the opposing home team's doctors. They've also updated policies for recognizing and treating concussion symptoms, as has the NHL.

Mistakes will get made, though, no matter the policy.

I can't fathom, for example, what Chicago's management was thinking Friday to put Marian Hossa right back on the rink three days after he fell forward onto the ice as the result of a forearm to the back of the head from the Canucks' Jannik Hansen.

Catch that one?

Horrible sight.

Being aware of Hossa's concussion history, it should have been top priority for the Blackhawks to protect the athlete. Maybe for just, you know, one game. Given their 14-0-3 start, any gamble that they'd be holding Hossa out of the lineup for no reason was comparatively tiny.

But Hossa passed a concussion test Friday morning, and management left the call to play up to him. Hossa had acknowledged being "a little shaky" after the injury, but he declared himself "all clear" and went full-bore for that hollow February game against the Sharks.

Let it all be instructive, including Malkin's history.

Not many know this, but Malkin sustained a concussion in February 2004, his draft year. He isn't known to have had another, but neurologists generally agree that concussions don't carry expiration dates. The more you have, the worse it gets. So extra caution is in order, even if on that count alone.

Not to be a downer or anything.

Here's hoping that, whether it's the result of the Penguins' handling or a huge helping of magical borscht from Mrs. Malkin, this story ends much, much sooner than Crosby's.

Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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