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Kasparaitis could return in just weeks

He rejects knee operation after working out in N.Y.

Wednesday, September 30, 1998

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Penguins defenseman Darius Kasparaitis prides himself on being a quick healer, but he just might have outdone himself this time.

It could be only a matter of weeks before Penguins defenseman Darius Kasparaitis is back on the ice, playing the role of superpest. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette) 

Kasparaitis, who had been expected to miss four to six months because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, said last night he hopes to be back in the lineup "probably around the first of November, if everything goes well."

Kasparaitis was injured during an exhibition game in Detroit Sept. 20, and returned to his home on Long Island last Thursday, after an MRI and other examinations appeared to detect a severe tear in his ACL.

He had been scheduled to undergo an arthroscopic examination in New York this morning, with the understanding that the procedure would be extended to include surgical repair of his injury once the torn-ligament diagnosis was confirmed.

But the arthroscopy - even the examination portion of it - that had seemed unavoidable earlier this week has been called off.

"That picture [of inevitable surgery] was being painted, for sure," General Manager Craig Patrick said. "But you can take the brush away from that canvas, at least for now."

The decision to cancel the surgery was made by Kasparaitis, who has been working out with a former associate from the New York Islanders for nearly a week and said he began to contemplate that move over the weekend.

"I started getting my energy back and started feeling much better," he said. "I woke up Sunday morning, and I realized I was OK."

He mentioned that to his wife, who suggested he talk to his physical therapist. Kasparaitis did, and that led to a conversation with his physician, Dr. Jeffrey Minkov. The decision to pass on the arthroscopic procedure followed.

"I felt pretty strong about it," Kasparaitis said. "I knew what surgery would mean to me. I figure I should try to play that way."

He acknowledged, though, that while his knee feels good, there is no assurance that his ACL hasn't been severely damaged.

"Nobody knows if it's torn or if it's not," he said. "If something happens, it happens."

Kasparaitis is scheduled to undergo two weeks of intense rehabilitation, with the goal of building up the muscles around his knee. If that goes without a hitch, he will get clearance to resume skating.

Kasparaitis' goal is to fly back here with his teammates after they play the regular-season opener Oct. 10 on Long Island and to be back in uniform three weeks or so later.

His workouts last about two hours per day, Kasparaitis said, and have put an emphasis on riding an exercise bike and weight-lifting.

"We want to see how the knee reacts," he said. "So far, it's doing a tremendous job. . . . I'm excited. I'm starting to forget that I'm injured."

Kasparaitis, though clearly enthused, is trying to take his recovery a day at a time. Nonetheless, he did allow himself at least one long-range observation: Even if his knee holds up for the entire season, he wants to have it examined next summer.

"After this season, if everything goes all right, maybe we'll try to see what's going on," he said.

Even if Kasparaitis is forced to miss the first three weeks or so of the season, calling off the surgery has led to a stunning change in his prognosis - at least as long as his knee holds up.

Until yesterday, the best-case scenario had been to have him back by Groundhog Day. Now, barring a setback, Halloween might not be out of the question.

"Considering that, at this time yesterday, we were thinking that he was going to have surgery Wednesday, and now he's not, it's definitely a positive move," Patrick said.

Getting Kasparaitis back would be a major boost to the Penguins' playoff prospects, and his decision to pass on surgery marks the second time this month a surprising medical development has gone in their favor.

When goalie Peter Skudra dislocated his right shoulder early in training camp, the Penguins feared he would need surgery that would have prevented him from playing for several months. Dr. James Andrews, a specialist in Birmingham, Ala., determined an operation was not required, however, and Skudra should be back on the ice in a matter of days.

"We feel as good about [Kasparaitis] as we just felt a couple of weeks ago on Peter Skudra," said Coach Kevin Constantine, who cautioned that, "obviously, those guys have to get through the hurdle of having their rehab worked, and being healed again."

Kasparaitis had surgery to repair a torn ACL in his right knee in 1995, an injury that forced him to sit out 35 games of a lockout-shortened season. That experience likely influenced his decision to pass on surgery now.

"No way I wanted to miss another season like that," he said.

Most people in the Penguins' organization, though, figured until yesterday that there just weren't many options.

"We were proceeding under the assumption that it was inconclusive, whether he needed surgery or not," Constantine said. "But a lot of what we were hearing was that it kind of looked like he would. . . . We certainly hadn't written him off for the year, but it didn't look very promising."

One skeptic of note was right winger Jaromir Jagr. He doesn't have a medical degree - he's not even in a frequent-patient program - but Jagr suspected from the start that the damage to Kasparaitis' knee was not as extensive as was widely believed.

"When I saw him walk, I knew he wasn't going to be that hurt," Jagr said. "He was walking normal."

Perhaps it was that deep-seated belief that Kasparaitis' injury wasn't as severe as most suspected that kept Jagr from dwelling on the likely impact of his absence. Or maybe it was just that, at this time of year, players have enough other issues on which to focus.

"This is training camp," Jagr said. "You're trying to get into shape, and you don't pay that much attention to what happened to Kaspar. During the season, you'd pay a lot more attention.

"We're still not playing [regular-season games], so we don't know how much we'd miss him. ... During the regular season, then you find out how much you're going to miss him."

What the Penguins found out yesterday is that they might not be missing Kasparaitis for very long, after all.

NOTES - Anaheim is in the market for an offensive defenseman who can quarterback its power play, with Kevin Hatcher of the Penguins and Edmonton's Roman Hamrlik apparently on the list of candidates. Jack Ferreira of the Mighty Ducks scouted three Penguins games in four nights last week. . . . Players participating in yesterday's practice probably should receive hazardous-duty pay. Tyler Wright lost three teeth when he was struck in the mouth by a stick blade, Ian Moran was felled by a Victor Ignatjev shot and Dan Kesa hurt his groin. Kesa's injury will force him to sit out the Penguins' pre-season game against Boston tonight at 7:30 in Worcester, Mass. His spot in the lineup will be taken by Sean Pronger. . . . With three exhibition games left, the Penguins' top priority is settling on who, from their current 33-man roster, should still be with the team on opening night. "We're going to try to play any guy who still has a reasonable chance of making the team," Constantine said. "Which is everybody, or we'd already have cut them."

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