The Penguins are painfully aware of the unpredictable, often frustrating nature of head injuries and related problems. Team captain Sidney Crosby missed most of a 15-month span and had a comeback thwarted because of a concussion and neck injury he got in January 2011.
While the club is not ready to categorize the injury to its other star center, Evgeni Malkin, there are indications that the Penguins are willing to err on the side of caution and be patient.
Malkin did not participate in an optional practice Saturday at Southpointe, and he has been ruled out for the game tonight against Tampa Bay at Consol Energy Center.
He left the 3-1 victory Friday night against Florida in the third period after slamming into the end boards, hitting his back and head and snapping his neck in a whiplash motion. Coach Dan Bylsma, the only one to address Malkin's situation directly Saturday, referred repeatedly to the NHL protocol. That is an indication of fear of a concussion because the league protocol is designed to detect such head injuries and keep players out of the lineup until they are fully recovered.
"He is still getting evaluated as far as the hit and going into the boards hard," Bylsma said. "That's an ongoing process at this point. When we have more information, we'll give it to you."
He said based on what Crosby went through, the team is in a waiting mode with Malkin.
Crosby got hurt on a hit by David Steckel, then with Washington, in the Jan. 1, 2011, outdoor Winter Classic. Symptoms beyond a sore neck did not manifest right away, and he played again four nights later. In that game, Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman hit Crosby from behind, and Crosby's head crashed into the glass.
Crosby initially was diagnosed with a mild concussion that would keep him out for a short term. But he missed the second half of that season, came back in November 2011 for eight games, left the lineup again, was treated for a neck injury and, last March, finally returned for good.
Penguins vs. Tampa Bay Lightning, 7:38 p.m. today, Consol Energy Center.
- TV, Radio:
Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders:
Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Anders Lindback for Lightning.
Are 4-0 at home vs. Tampa Bay over past two regular seasons. ... Have scored a power-play goal in 10 games in a row. ... D Matt Niskanen has scored in consecutive games for first time in his career.
Were 3-6-1 in February before playing Saturday at Carolina. ... Steven Stamkos had 4 goals, 7 points in four games before that game. ... Rookie Cory Conacher had points in nine of his first 16 games, including three games in a row, before Saturday.
- Hidden stat:
Going into Saturday, Penguins led NHL with 42 points from defensemen (11 goals, 31 assists).
So, as far as Malkin, "There really is nothing to expect at this point," Bylsma said.
"He's getting evaluated, and we're waiting to see how he feels and reacts. He went into the boards pretty darned hard. I'm really not expecting or think it's any kind of timeline or anything [as far as] the injury or what's going on.
"It's hard to know what to expect in any situation of this nature."
Malkin, 26, is the defending NHL scoring champion and MVP.
Going into Saturday, he was tied for eighth in league scoring with 21 points, including four goals, in 18 games.
Because the Penguins had just 13 players at the optional practice, they did not do drills using forward-line combinations.
Bylsma indicated, however, that Brandon Sutter would move up from the third line and play with Malkin's wingers, Beau Bennett and James Neal. Dustin Jeffrey is expected to move into Sutter's former spot between wingers Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy.
"You don't replace certain guys up top," said winger Chris Kunitz, whose line with Crosby and Pascal Dupuis apparently will remain intact.
"We have a lot of guys who can play different roles on this team. They're versatile enough to be able to go into a second-line role or a fourth-line role. Whatever the team needs, we have guys who can do that.
"It's something, hopefully, we don't have to deal with for long."
On the play in which Malkin was injured, he was driving toward the net from the left circle when Florida defenseman Erik Gudbranson caught up with him and tried to force him off of the puck. Malkin fell and slid with speed on his right side behind the net and into the boards.
His back slammed into the boards. His head snapped backward and also hit the boards.
He remained on the ice for a couple of minutes before skating off under his own power.
Part of the NHL protocol calls for players who have any impact with their head to be evaluated immediately by a doctor in a "quiet room."
There was no penalty on the play, and Gudbranson said he simply was finishing his check.
Bylsma said Malkin was not hospitalized.
For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1721 or Twitter @pgshelly. First Published February 24, 2013 5:00 AM