Penguins star Sidney Crosby hasn't played since suffering a concussion… (Gene J. Puskar / Associated…)
From Pittsburgh — The gleaming, glass-fronted Consol Energy Center is the house that Mario Lemieux built, a testament to his indomitable will during his Hall of Fame career and, later, in saving the Penguins from ruin and relocation by becoming their owner.
Lemieux made the arena happen but it was constructed as a palace for Sidney Crosby, the next savior of hockey in Pittsburgh and the NHL's favorite face. Where Lemieux was regal and distant Crosby is built on a human scale, not quite six feet tall, polite and approachable. And he has the goods to justify the hype: He won a scoring title, most valuable player award, Stanley Cup championship, Olympic gold medal and NHL goal-scoring title before he turned 23 last August.
Crosby's name and face are everywhere in the new arena — on photos, the backs of fans' jerseys and in videos played on the gigantic scoreboard. Everywhere, lately, but on the ice.
While gliding toward another scoring title with 32 goals and 66 points in 41 games, Crosby absorbed hits to the head in two consecutive games, from Washington forward David Steckel on Jan. 1 and on a blow from behind by Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman on Jan. 5. It's not clear whether the first or second hit caused his concussion but either way, the result is dismayingly the same.
He's out indefinitely, still enduring unsettling symptoms. And although the Penguins banded together through much of his absence, they're wilting without him and dynamic forward Evgeni Malkin, who tore ligaments in his right knee last week.
Malkin is scheduled to undergo surgery Thursday before the Penguins face the Kings. He will require six months' rehabilitation. There's no such schedule for Crosby.
"A bone heals. You can see your timeline a little bit more than with a concussion," said teammate Jordan Staal, who missed the first 39 games of the season with foot and hand injuries. "It's a lot more frustrating that way."
Crosby escaped Pittsburgh's raw winter last week for warmth and healing time with his family. He's in town again and might watch Thursday's game from a suite. That's the closest he will come to the ice for now.
"There's no timetable, really," said his agent, Pat Brisson. "Once he's completely symptom-free a few days and doctors feel it's appropriate for him to start doing any physical activity, he'll work out at a pace recommended by the medical staff. If he's OK, they'll increase his load.
"But we just don't know when that will happen."
The Penguins lost their first three games without Crosby but won eight of the next nine, riding Marc-Andre Fleury's stellar goaltending, cohesive team defense and the league's best penalty-killing unit. But they generated few scoring chances and scored only once in their last two games while adding concerns: Winger Chris Kunitz, their second-leading goal scorer with 18, was unable to play Tuesday against Columbus because of a lower-body injury, and they gave up countless outnumbered rushes as their defensive game disintegrated.
"When you play without the best center in the world and probably one of the best centers in the game as well it's always a challenge," forward Maxime Talbot said, "but at the same time you see the character of the guys. I think it tests our character and it tests this team a lot, which is not a bad thing in some ways."
General Manager Ray Shero would appreciate fewer tests. And fewer rumors, like those the other day saying Crosby had to stop working out because he was seeing stars (no) and that Crosby was out for the season. (No again).
"I don't think there's been one time that I've said to Sid since Jan. 6, 'How are you feeling?' When he feels better he's going to let us know, and the main thing for me right now, with all these things floating around day to day, is patience," Shero said. "You need to have patience with a concussion. He's not the first guy I've dealt with in my days in the NHL who's had a concussion. Or in the minor leagues. Everybody responds differently. There are serious issues and the safety of the player is always paramount no matter if it's Sidney Crosby or anybody else.
"I think it's important he knows he has our support no matter how long this takes. The most important thing for him is to feel better, and once he feels better he's going to let us know. There's nothing else to really say."
Shero hadn't planned on doing much before the Feb. 28 trading deadline because he anticipated having only about $600,000 in salary-cap space. Placing players on long-term injured reserve provides cap relief that Shero might grab. He has a history of impact deadline deals, including acquiring Kunitz and forward Bill Guerin for the 2009 Cup drive, but you don't replace a Crosby or a Malkin.
"Once I start talking to teams around the league I'm sure they're really going to want to help me out," he said dryly.
Of course, he's certain the opposite is true. That might be the only certainty for the Penguins at the moment.