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Sidney Crosby: Mystery of the missing Penguin

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

TORONTO – The question comes every day, and the answer comes back the same way. Sidney Crosby(notes), according to his coach, Dan Bylsma, is “still with symptoms.”

And it isn’t what Bylsma says as much as how he says it when he answers what is becoming a common question: Does it get to the point where the Pittsburgh Penguins must prepare themselves for the possibility that Crosby, their captain, the face of the NHL, the best player in the world, won’t come back from his concussion this season?

“With every …” Bylsma began, before halting again and again. “I don’t … You know, you’re talking about entertaining the idea of …”

Pause.

“We’re anticipating him sometime getting better,” Bylsma said. “That may be, uh … a month. I don’t … We don’t know. It could be this summer. We don’t know. We’re going to continue preparing to play just the way we have been.

“Sid’s progress is really … It’s not something we moni …”

Bylsma didn’t even finish the word “monitor.”

“We ask him every day as a coaching staff,” Bylsma said. “He’s been doing a lot better. He’s been progressing. And we hope that means he’s going to get better and return to 100-percent health sometime … sometime in the … this spring sometime. I can’t even really give you any kind of deadline or date on it.”

Bylsma couldn’t have said it better. When it comes to concussions, it’s all about fits and starts and sensitivity and uncertainty. As he spoke Wednesday, the Penguins were preparing to play the Toronto Maple Leafs – their 24th consecutive game without Crosby and counting.

It was Jan. 1 when Crosby collided with David Steckel, then of the Washington Capitals, in the Winter Classic outdoor game at Heinz Field. It was Jan. 5 when Crosby took a hit from behind from Victor Hedman(notes) of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Originally, relaying what he had been told by the medical staff, Bylsma said Crosby had a mild concussion and would miss about a week. That was a mistake. That was eight weeks ago now, and all we know definitively is that Crosby is “still with symptoms,” it’s March already and the playoffs are six weeks away.

Concussions don’t come with timelines.

The Penguins don’t plan to hold a press conference to declare Crosby is out for the rest of the season, the way the Boston Bruins did with Marc Savard(notes). That was different. Savard had previous battles with concussions that caused his doctors to shut him down.

Crosby is like Matthew Lombardi(notes) in Nashville and David Perron(notes) in St. Louis and so many others dealing with concussions in the NHL right now, lost in the fog, his outlook unknown, only in that he’s unlike anyone else because he is Crosby, of course.

At the time of his injury, Crosby had 32 goals and 66 points in 41 games, putting him on pace for 64 goals and 132 points – the best statistical season in the NHL since the early 1990s. Even now, having missed more than a quarter of the season, he still ranks fourth in goals (tied with the Vancouver CanucksDaniel Sedin(notes)) and seventh in points (one ahead of the Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin(notes), his supposed foil in the best-player debate, who hasn’t missed a game).

“It’s crazy for the league and scary for the league itself not to have a player like that in the game, especially for the length of time that he’s been out with the injury that he has,” said Leafs winger Colby Armstrong(notes), a former Penguins teammate. “Hopefully he gets better. I think everyone misses his highlights every night.”

It’s scary from a player-safety standpoint, further raising the awareness of the dangers of concussions.

When NHL general managers meet later this month, they will discuss whether they should strengthen the rule enacted last year that bans blindside hits to the head. They will discuss whether they should strengthen the protocol when a player comes back from a concussion. Should all hits to the head be banned? Should a player be examined more thoroughly before he is allowed back onto the ice? If Crosby’s absence continues, it will cast a shadow over the debate.

But for the Penguins, it is also a practical matter.

At the time of his injury, Crosby was the runaway favorite to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. He was carrying the team at a time when Evgeni Malkin(notes) wasn’t on top of his game and Jordan Staal(notes) was injured. He racked up 26 goals and 50 points during a 25-game scoring streak that included a 12-game Penguins winning streak.

And now, not only is Crosby out, but Malkin is out for the season with two torn knee ligaments, and Staal has been asked to carry too much of the load just 25 games into his return. Several other Penguins have been hit by injuries.

Even though the Penguins have gone from averaging 3.29 goals per game with Crosby to 2.04 without him, they have stayed afloat. They have gone 11-9-3 since Crosby went down. They have gone 7-7-2 without Crosby and Malkin.

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury(notes) has been excellent. The Penguins have received solid contributions from their supporting cast. Bylsma has juggled his lineup and pressed his team to play like Penguins, as if the team’s identity weren’t tied to Crosby and Malkin.

“No matter what happens in the game, no matter if we’re up or down, no matter if we’re on the road, if we’re in a tough building, we want to continue to play the same way, have the same expectations, the same execution,” Bylsma said. “And that doesn’t change no matter who’s on the ice. If someone is not in the lineup, it doesn’t change. We don’t sound fire alarms.”

But the longer Crosby is “still with symptoms,” the more alarming it is in so many ways. You don’t want to be alarmist and say Crosby won’t be back this season, that he won’t be the same whenever he does come back. But you don’t know, either.

And even though general manager Ray Shero added depth up front before the trade deadline with James Neal(notes) and Alexei Kovalev, you have to doubt whether the Penguins, the Stanley Cup runners-up in 2008, the Cup champions in ’09, once a leading contender this season, can go deep in the playoffs without Crosby and Malkin.

“You can’t replace those guys,” Kovalev said. “I’ll do the best I can and fill some of the holes they have. But those are the guys they built this team on. They’re important guys, and this team really misses them.”

The question used to come every day in the Penguins’ dressing room, too. But because the answer always came back the same way, Crosby’s teammates have learned to stop asking him how he feels.

“It probably gets old for him,” Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis(notes) said. “You try to leave him alone to not put too much thoughts in his head.”

Lord knows, his head has had enough already.

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