PITTSBURGH – It’s a too-familiar scene and a recurring nightmare: Sidney Crosby laying face down and motionless on the ice after landing on the wrong end of a shot to his helmeted head; a trainer running out to see if he’s OK when everyone knows he isn’t; the Pittsburgh Penguins star helped to his feet, to the bench and down into the hallway to the dressing room, disappearing from sight.
So it was six minutes into Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinal against the Washington Capitals Monday night at the PPG Paints Arena, the moment when the Stanley Cup Playoffs changed utterly at the end of one awful shift. Or might have changed.
The outcome of the game, a Washington overtime win, and the final score, 3-2, and even the winning goal, a slapshot from the point by Kevin Shattenkirk on a power play in the game’s 64th minute, all of it matters less today than the loss of Crosby. If it’s a loss for any amount of time, then it’s a loss felt not only by the Penguins but also by the NHL and anyone who cares about the game. After all, earlier in the day, Crosby was named a finalist for the Hart Trophy.
Having won the first two games in the home arena of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals, Pittsburgh still leads the series two games to one. Still, that’s not much of a silver lining. The potential of a concussion or whiplash is as dark as clouds get over the Steel City since the mills closed. You hope that Crosby will be back for Game 4 or at some point in this series or this spring, but you fear given his history that he might not be there even when the 2017-18 season opens.
The Capitals’ goals in regulation time in Game 3 were forgettable enough.
Thirteen minutes in, on a 5-on-3 power play for Washington, Nicklas Backstrom stood at the side of the net and fired a puck with no special intent in front. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury had been lights out in the post-season but this time he was unlucky. He managed to get a stick on the puck to break up what might have been a pass to Justin Williams. The puck bounced up not quite waist-high and deflected off defenceman Ian Cole’s leg into the net.
Likewise, a goal by Evgeny Kuznetsov midway through the third period wasn’t as ugly but it seemed to snuff out any hope of a late surge by the home side.
With less than two minutes left, the hosts staged the unlikeliest of rallies: two goals with the goaltender pulled for an extra attacker; two slapshot blasts, 48 seconds apart. Evgeni Malkin stroked the first, Justin Schultz the latter with 65 seconds left.
It looked like the Capitals were reeling but they righted themselves in overtime.
In the third minute of the extra frame, Marcus Johansson drew a holding penalty on defenceman Trevor Daley. On the next shift the Caps threw the puck around until it landed on Shattenkirk’s stick for a one-timer through the screen of T.J. Oshie and past Fleury.
That was Game 3 in a nutshell. It will linger a day or two and we’ll move on. We’ll be talking about the play that knocked Crosby out of Game 3 a lot longer. Whether he’s back for Game 4 or not at all this spring, it will be discussed and replayed and remembered. There will be fallout.
The sequence started with Crosby skating on the left wing on a 2-on-1 with his winger Jake Guentzel carrying the puck and Washington defenceman Matt Niskanen back. Guentzel found Crosby with a pass and Crosby crashed the net.
Just when the Penguins captain was at the edge of Braden Holtby’s crease, Alexander Ovechkin skated into the frame. The way this usually plays, Crosby is nemesis to Ovechkin. Not this time. Ovechkin swung his stick at the puck and might have caught it, Crosby’s stick and Crosby’s skate all in a split second. Crosby went into a speed wobble and his knee seemed to give. He went bailing by Holtby where Niskanen was waiting with the shaft of his stick not quite six feet off the ice, ready to intersect with either the side of Crosby’s helmet or anything unguarded from the neck up. There was no question about intent and Niskanen was handed a five-minute major for cross-checking and a game misconduct.
“I thought it was really a hockey play,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said. “[Crosby] is coming across, [Holtby] throws his stick out there and [Crosby] sort of gets split … and he just sort of ran into [Niskanen].”
When advised of Trotz’s reading of Niskanen’s hit on his star, Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said simply: “I’d rather not comment on that.” His stare burned a hole in his interrogator.
Crosby was down for at least a couple of minutes before he sat up. There wasn’t a clear sign of a knee injury but then again he went off the ice at a crawl.
Sullivan said the world will have to wait until Tuesday for updates on the condition of Crosby and left-winger Conor Sheary, who left the game after a friendly-fire collision with teammate Patric Hornqvist. Asked if Crosby had suffered both upper- and lower-body injuries on the play, Sullivan again declined to comment.
Can Pittsburgh win two more games against the Capitals to advance? It’s possible but then again, even before losing Crosby, the Penguins were already down a major player, namely their No. 1 blue-liner Kris Letang, who is out four-to-six months after neck surgery in April. Then, in warmups before the opening game in their series with Columbus, Pittsburgh lost Matt Murray, the goalie that they would have gone to as their first choice this spring. Fleury has been at worst unimpeachable and at best brilliant in the five games the Penguins needed to beat the Blue Jackets and the two road victories to open this series.
If Pittsburgh is going to win another game or two, it will be Fleury continuing shine, Malkin finding his former Conn Smythe-winning form and supporting players such as Chris Kunitz (who had a lion-hearted effort) stepping into the breach.
“We’re playing the game hard,” Sullivan said. “That game could have gone either way. I loved our compete level.”
If Washington is going to lose once or twice more to the Penguins, it is as likely to hang on Holtby, who didn’t impress in the opening round against Toronto and flat-lined in Game 2 of this series when he was pulled.
The series might have turned when No. 87 went down early on Monday night. Unless the Penguins get the best possible news out of the clinic Tuesday morning, the playoffs look utterly different than they did a bare 24 hours before.