Sidney Crosby is off to a strong start after a lengthy battle with concussion-like symptoms.
The Pittsburgh Penguins might need their captain to step up even more if Evgeni Malkin’s head injury becomes a long-term issue.
With Malkin out on Sunday night at Consol Energy Center, Crosby will face the Tampa Bay Lightning for the first time since suffering a hit two years ago that contributed to him missing so many games.
After missing the final 41 games of 2010-11 due to a concussion – his last appearance came on Jan. 5 when he was hit and sent into the glass by Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman – as well as the Penguins’ first-round playoff loss to the Lightning, Crosby played in just 22 a year ago as symptoms lingered.
Crosby, though, is performing up to the 12-year, $104.4 million contract he inked last summer, as he’s tied for second in the NHL scoring race with 25 points – one behind Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos.
Malkin, the league leader with 109 points last season, isn’t far behind with 21. However, the reigning MVP is out indefinitely after getting checked into the boards by Florida’s Erik Gudbranson in the third period of Friday’s 3-1 victory. Malkin, who slid back-first into the end boards and had his head snapped backward, underwent tests on Saturday. Coach Dan Bylsma wouldn’t elaborate much on what is being called an “upper body injury.”
“It’s hard to know what to expect in any situation of this nature,” Bylsma said.
According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, which cited multiple sources, Malkin was experiencing concussion-like symptoms on Saturday, including severe headaches and mild disorientation.
“I hope he’s OK,” said forward James Neal, tied for the league lead with 12 goals. “It (stinks), obviously, seeing (Malkin) go down, but any time any player goes down you just need to adjust and grind out a win, and we did that.”
Pittsburgh (12-6-0), tied with New Jersey for the Atlantic Division lead, has won four of five following back-to-back losses to the Devils. The Penguins will try to close out their three-game homestand on a positive note as the Lightning (9-7-1) make their first of two visits this season.
After winning three of four in Pittsburgh during the ’11 playoffs, including Games 5 and 7, Tampa Bay was outscored 12-3 while losing both road contests against the Penguins last season.
The Lightning, though, are going for their first three-game road winning streak since March 26-April 3, 2011, after Saturday’s 5-2 victory over host Carolina gave them sole possession of the Southeast Division lead.
“Obviously we knew the consequences and you’re always looking (at the standings),” forward Adam Hall told the Lightning’s official website after the team’s four-goal third period. “The focus though had to be breaking it down to what we needed to do, and the rest takes care of itself.”
Tampa Bay is averaging a league-best 3.88 goals – Pittsburgh is second at 3.28 – so strong play in net could make the Lightning hard to beat. Mathieu Garon might have earned a second straight start in place of Anders Lindback after Saturday’s 32-save performance.
“I thought he was terrific tonight,” coach Guy Boucher said. “He certainly deserved the win.”
Garon had a 4.58 goals-against average while losing his two starts against Pittsburgh last season.
Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who has victories in each of his last four starts, owns a 1.00 GAA while winning his last three regular-season home starts versus Tampa Bay.
Pittsburgh’s next home game after Sunday is March 4 versus Tampa Bay.