TORONTO - The sobering part of watching Sunday’s all-star festivities was all the commercial breaks that featured Sidney Crosby.
When might he be free from hawking donuts, coffee and power drinks and be lucid enough to resume his day job? It won’t come in time for this week’s home-and-home series with the Leafs, but the Penguins need Crosby aboard for any playoff run, no matter how well Evgeni Malkin is doing as their solo superstar.
The night before the game in Ottawa, the story came out that Crosby’s whirlwind visits to specialists in Utah, Georgia and California were to assess recovery from damage to the C1 and C2 vertebrae at the top of the neck. Off-ice pal Tom Brady made the suggestion.
No previous mention of Crosby’s neck problem had been made the past year, but Crosby’s initial complaint when hit by Washington Capital David Steckel was neck soreness.
The neck problem has since healed according to the Penguins and Crosby’s agent, Pat Brisson, but reports also say Brisson is steamed that this potentially major complication was not investigated after Crosby’s first hit.
Crosby, who watched the all-star game at owner Mario Lemieux’s house, worked out for 45 minutes on Monday, a promising development. But coach Dan Bylsma said afterward that the star is not ready for contact and another “independent doctor” is now looking at Crosby and his findings will become known to the team in a few days.
“All along, you’d like to have a definitive answer (in order to treat the injury),” Bylsma told the local media. “That’s the most difficult thing. If there was an exact road to go down, that would be a positive thing. I don’t know if that’s (the case).
“At this point, I feel Sidney feels, he’s gotten all the possible support from the Penguins medical staff to find an answer. He’s got every available support from everyone else he’s gone to.”
There was second guessing going back to when Crosby was allowed to play after the Steckel hit, when his neck and head were squashed by big Tampa Bay defenceman Victor Hedman. The most recent mishap that landed Crosby on the IR in early December is a puzzler, having yet to be officially diagnosed as a concussion. He took a bit of an elbow from Boston’s David Krejci in the same game that he banged head-on into teammate Chris Kunitz.
Adding to the saga was a report earlier in the month some Pens were skeptical of how serious Crosby’s condition was and were suggesting it might be time for an alternate captain. That came in the throws of a six-game losing streak, however. After a loss to Washington, players appeared at practice with makeshift C’s attached to their sweaters in unified support of Crosby. The club then went on a seven-game surge to the all-star break.
Yet the Pens know they can’t get complacent. Road games in Toronto, Boston, Philadelphia and Montreal are looming and they end the schedule with two versus the Flyers and singles against current top seeds, the Bruins and Rangers.
The Pens have known for a long time how blessed they are to have a pair of franchise forwards, but they’ve rarely needed one to do the work of two. Both Crosby and Malkin have tended to be either healthy or hurt at the same time. In 2007-08, with Crosby shelved for 28 games with an ankle injury, Malkin revved up and produced 44 points in that span, runner-up to Alex Ovechkin for the Art Ross Trophy.
Malkin has emerged again. The 25-year-old, who preceded Crosby to the draft by 12 months but had to wait an extra year to play, has been the lead sled dog in putting them back in playoff contention. Without Crosby, or Jordan Staal, Malkin went into the all-star break as the league’s leading scorer with 58 points. He’s helped James Neal get into the Maurice Richard Trophy race with 27 goals.
“Right now he’s the difference against every team,” fellow all-star Kris Letang told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He’s the best player in the NHL right now. His body language is pretty obvious when he’s ready to go. He’s playing really focused lately.”
Malkin observers agree he’s never appeared so comfortable in the spotlight that he has willingly yielded to Crosby. Malkin’s unfamiliarity with the language and customs initially held him back, though he has never been tentative on the ice. In 2008-09, he had the rare double of leading the league in both regular-season and playoff points.
“I feel awesome,” he told reporters in Ottawa after a two-point night for Team Chara. “I think I deserve to be here. Everyone deserves to be here. It’s a great show.”
But a double act works best in these parts.