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Crosby brings renewed focus on head injuries

The goal, really, is to strike the proper balance. The NHL wants the game faster and more skilled without taking away the good old-fashioned rock 'em-sock 'em aggression that makes the game equally entertaining if not more. The problem, of course, is keeping the players in one piece.

Last year, the NHL adopted Rule 48, which in essence was designed to eliminate the blindside shots that have scrambled many a brain over the years. Bruins star Marc Savard is back on the shelf with another concussion, problems that really began last year when he didn't see the freight train known as Matt Cooke coming from the side.

The solution? Well, that remains an issue.

Concussions and head shots were discussed once again during NHL Board of Governors' meetings Saturday with more debate to come when they convene again in March. It became an issue going into the All-Star Game in part because of one superstar player who isn't playing in the event today, one Sidney Crosby.

"Frankly, I think the biggest reason we're focused on concussions is because of Sidney," Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke said. "If Mike Brown got that concussion, would you guys be around with cameras and asking about concussions? I don't think so. We're on top of it, but we have to watch it, obviously."

Crosby has been sidelined since Jan. 5 with what the Penguins initially described as a minor concussion. He was cleared to begin skating last week, but his absence from the All-Star Game leaves the NHL without the face of the league in one of its marquee events of the season.

"There's a great deal of concern," Bruins President Cam Neely said. "It's important for the league to do what they can and GMs to get the right rules in place to reduce concussions. Unfortunately, it's a physical sport, a contact sport and there's no out of bounds. You can't control all of them, but you can try your best to control most of them."

The NHL for years has been ahead of other professional leagues when it comes to concussions. The NFL only recently adopted a policy to diagnose and treat them, and its approach is similar to what the NHL has been doing since the 1990s. The NFL also cracked down on players going for head shots.

And much like many NFL players who moaned about taking away their aggression in a physical sport, Burke worried implementing an all-encompassing, no-tolerance rule in which penalties would be handed out for any hit to the head is going too far. Such rules exist in junior leagues in Canada, U.S. college hockey and youth leagues.

For now, the rules remain the same.

"We've got to preserve the hitting in our game, but we have to make it as safe as we can within those confines," Burke said. "This is a game where you get knocked on your [butt] at any time when you have the puck or just released it. That can't change. That's what's distinctive and interesting. That's what our fans like in our game.

"We're going to have guys get banged up. The concussion thing is the topic de jour. It will be shoulders next year if there's a rash of shoulder injuries."


>Flames a delusion?

The Flames appeared to be headed for another long offseason before putting together a four-game winning streak against Dallas, Vancouver, Nashville and St. Louis. They're in 12th place but only two points behind eighth-place San Jose in the West.

If there's anything wrong with winning four straight games, it's convincing ownership and management that they're really a true contender. In fact, they would be better off thinking about next season rather than dreaming about this one.

Sound familiar?

The Sabres are in a similar situation while flirting with eighth place in the East, but they don't have the talent or depth to make a serious run. Philly finished eighth last season and reached the Cup finals, but that team was much more equipped with Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Daniel Briere and Chris Pronger among others.

"Keep writing that we don't have a chance," Flames center Brendan Morrison said. "Then everyone will forget about us and we can sneak up on guys."


>Sending a message

Red Wings GM Ken Holland was looking for immediate help when he signed veteran Evgeni Nabokov, only to see the Islanders snatch him off waivers, but he also might have been looking to keep Jimmy Howard on his toes.

"If I had to have somebody here push me, then I got serious problems," Howard said. "It's a part of the game, whatever Kenny and management think is best for the team. I'm sure the dressing room would've welcomed [Nabokov] with open arms. You can use anyone to help you win."

Howard has a terrific record (24-8-3) but his 2.81 goals-against average ranks 32nd and his .906 save percentage is 29th among NHL goalies. He had a 2.26 GAA and .924 save percentage last season while making a push for rookie of the year.

Chris Osgood is sidelined after having sports-hernia surgery, third-stringer Joey MacDonald isn't a threat and Sanborn native Thomas McCollum is on the farm developing his game. The Red Wings were ranked 18th in penalty killing and 17th in goals against.

"The Nabokov thing was an opportunity for us," Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "If it had happened, it would've helped our goaltending because we have no Ozzie. Also, it's a message to everybody -- the league's in constant change. If someone can take your job, they take your job."


>Candidates lining up

Senators owner Eugene Melnyk has insisted he's sticking with GM Bryan Murray and coach Cory Clouston for the rest of the season, which has led to speculation about who could replace them after the season.

Kirk Muller appears to be leaving Montreal and could be a good coaching candidate along with Bob Hartley. Julien Brisebois, who joined Steve Yzerman in Tampa, is looking to take over his own team. Television analyst Pierre McGuire would be interested, too, and his name continues to float around.

And don't forget about Darcy Regier, assuming he's sent packing by the Sabres. Regier has plenty of experience with his mixed results. Some believe he would be more effective if allowed to spend freely without owners meddling in his decisions. It doesn't change the fact the Sabres need a new face at the top.


>Forsberg hopeful

Peter Forsberg has continued skating while trying to figure out whether he has finally overcome his foot problems and resume his NHL career at age 37.

Forsberg skated well during workouts with the Avalanche and still believes he can help them get into the playoffs. Rest and a new foot brace, which apparently solved the problem that threatened to end his career in the first place, have worked wonders.

"I just don't think that I'm done yet," he said. "I just feel that I have more to give."



Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward on the immense attention 18-year-old star Jeff Skinner has received in his rookie season: "He's like the Justin Bieber of Raleigh."


>Around the boards

* Regier to "We're getting a lot of pop out of our young kids. Older players that we all believed in when we signed them aren't performing at the levels that they're capable of, or maybe we misjudged it. In some part, I think we could be selling veterans if we can sell them because we like what we see in our youth."

* Rumors continued swirling into the all-star break about the Kings being another team that could be for sale. It doesn't appear to be happening soon unless someone comes along and wants to buy the team but not the Staples Center. AEG owns both and isn't interested in selling a building that has become a cash cow.

* Vancouver continues to find help along the blue line. The Canucks lost Alex Edler to a back injury that required surgery and will keep him out for eight to 12 weeks. No problem. Tiny tot defenseman Lee Sweatt was called up from the minors and scored the winner against Nashville in his NHL debut.

* The last thing Chicago needed before the all-star break was two straight losses at home. The Blackhawks come out of the break with six straight games on the road and have 17 games away from the United Center in February and March. They have only 12 home games left this season.

* How far has winger Ales Kotalik fallen less than two years after suiting up for the Sabres? He wore out his welcome with the Rangers and was traded to the Flames last season. Last week, he cleared waivers and was assigned to AHL Abbottsford. He has scored 14 goals in the past three seasons combined.