Evgeni Malkin sustained his first documented NHL concussion in a home game against a Southeast Division team, and the defending league MVP will return to the Penguins lineup in a similar scenario.
As reported on the team website, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Malkin was cleared for body contact by the team’s medical staff Sunday. He passed his ImPACT test, which evaluates an athlete’s cognitive function against a previously-recorded “baseline” score, then participated in a full practice later in the day.
“We followed protocol carefully and took every precaution possible,” Bylsma told Sam Kasan of the Penguins’ in-house media staff. “In this case, Evgeni had memory loss that returned. He felt good for seven full days. He’s worked out hard on and off the ice for those seven day, full contact, full go in practice. We’re not talking about gut feelings. He’s gone through the protocol and the steps.”
A sixth-year pro, Malkin has four goals and 17 assists in 18 games this season. He trails only Sidney Crosby (34 points) and Chris Kunitz (27) on the Penguins scoring list.
Malkin was felled Feb. 22 when Florida defenseman Erik Gubrandson’s legal body check sent him stumbling backward into the boards behind the Panthers goal. A whiplash-type motion drove the back of his head and neck violently into the wall:
Malkin left that game immediately following the injury, and he will end up missing four games if all goes according to plan tonight. The Penguins went 2-2-0 in his absence, with wins over Tampa Bay and Montreal countered by losses at Florida and Carolina.
The Pittsburgh offense didn’t noticeably suffer without last year’s NHL scoring champion, as it put up 17 goals in the four games Malkin missed. On the other hand, James Neal has a team-best 13 goals, but only one with his usual centerman Malkin on the injured reserve list.
“For me, [Malkin's] a guy I found good chemistry with,” said Neal, who’s skated alongside Malkin for most of his two-year tenure in Pittsburgh. “We kind of feed off each other. He’s a guy that has the ability to score big goals, but also to make unbelievable passes.”
At the Penguins’ morning game-day skate, Malkin took line rushes with Neal and Matt Cooke on his wings. Brandon Sutter, who had filled in on the second line with Malkin out, returned to the third forward unit between Dustin Jeffrey and Tyler Kennedy.
In a surprise move, rookie Beau Bennett was relegated to the “fifth” line along with Zach Boychuk during the skate. Bennett recorded an assist in Saturday’s wild 7-6 win at Montreal, giving him three points (1g, 2a) in eight games at the NHL level. The 21-year-old Californian has averaged just over 10 minutes of ice time per game, but has mostly been assigned to the third line thus far.
UPDATE (4 p.m.): The Penguins announced that Bennett has been re-assigned to the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Despite playing in only 35 of the Baby Pens’ 47 games, Bennett is still fourth in team scoring with seven goals and 18 assists in his first professional season.