With Malkin’s Status Uncertain, Penguins Make Adjustments

The Pittsburgh Penguins know as well as any NHL team how concerning the words “concussion-like symptoms” can be, especially when they apply to a franchise-caliber player.

After spending more than a year dealing with those issues with captain Sidney Crosby, the Penguins suffered a blow Friday night when their other superstar center, Evgeni Malkin, came speeding into the offensive zone with the puck and went down on a hit from Florida Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson, sliding hard into the end boards and smacking his head.

“Geno’s going with good speed to make a move,” Neal said. “Tough hit; it’s just a dangerous spot the way he goes in.”

How significant of a blow it will be to the player and his team is uncertain, as issues around concussions usually are. For now, the NHL’s reigning scoring champion and MVP has been ruled out of Sunday night’s contest against the Tampa Bay Lightning and is undergoing further evaluation for symptoms that reportedly include headaches and disorientation.

“That’s an ongoing process at this point in time,” said head coach Dan Bylsma, adding that the Penguins are following the NHL protocol for concussion symptoms. “We’re waiting to see how he feels and reacts. He obviously went into the boards pretty darn hard, so we’re really not expecting any kind of timeline to the injury. It’s hard to know what to expect in any situation of this nature.”

Given the nature of Crosby’s symptoms, which not only lingered but took several days to manifest after the initial injury, the Penguins are likely to exercise caution with Malkin. The team is shuffling lines to prepare for his absence, with Brandon Sutter moving up to center the second line with James Neal and rookie Beau Bennett, and Dustin Jeffrey being rewarded for strong performances in limited ice time this season by centering the third line with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy. Joe Vitale will return to the lineup to center Craig Adams and Tanner Glass on the fourth line.

For Bennett, who’s been alternating between the second line with Malkin and Neal and the third line with Sutter and Kennedy, his growing confidence just four games into his NHL career will help as he takes on an increased role.

“I think the first few games, you’re just trying to see how much time and space you have, and I felt like tonight there was a little more out there,” said Bennett, who’s still looking for his first point. “We had some chances and [I’m] definitely feeling a little more comfortable. You want to just be strong defensively first and the offense will come. I’m not pressing, as long as we’re winning.”

“You noticed him winning battles, playing harder in defensive-zone situations,” Bylsma said. “In the offensive zone, I saw one nice rush play he had; he used his body and went to the net hard there. He can make plays, he’s got soft hands, but what he has shown in the past three months is that he can play in hard areas, he can win those puck battles. And I thought, in that regard, this was his best game.”

Jeffrey is also ready to step up after sitting out 13 of the first 18 games. “I’m not happy to play a game every five; obviously, you want to play every night,” he said before the Florida game, where he helped make his case by scoring the third goal in the Penguins’ 3-1 win over the Panthers.

Jeffrey’s opportunity Friday came on Pittsburgh’s fourth line, which would seem to be a less-than-natural fit for an offensive-minded player. But that’s not necessarily so in the Penguins’ system, Jeffrey said, and he’s ready to contribute regardless of the spot in the lineup.

“If you talk to Dan and what we’re looking for as our fourth line, obviously we want to be gritty but we also want puck possession. We want to keep teams hemmed in their own zone and be a line that [is] not playing in our zone; we’re wearing the other team down. And some of it’s being physical, but you have to be able to hold onto the puck and get pucks into their zone and create when you’re in there as well. If you’re looking for physical, what I bring to the table is a little different than what Joe [Vitale] brings to the table, and I think we’re well aware of that. I’ve just got to make sure I play my game and not change it to fill whatever the role people think.”

Jeffrey said he’s received positive feedback from his coaches on the games he has played this year.

“I thought I’ve played well and, talking to the coaches and going over my games, I’m pleased with the way I’ve played. Hopefully I’ll get another opportunity and go from there as it presents itself.”

With Malkin out, there’s little question that Bennett, Jeffrey and others will have an opportunity to step up. And, as they did during Crosby’s injury, the Penguins will simply have to adjust – and hope that, this time, it won’t be for the long-term.

“I hope he’s OK,” Neal said. “It sucks, obviously, seeing Geno go down, but any time a player goes down you need to adjust, grind out a win, and we did that [Friday].”

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