WASHINGTON — It was a miracle. Well, okay, something short of a miracle, but still.
You thought it was a semi-miracle when Sidney Crosby skated out onto the ice to take the opening faceoff of the fifth-but-not-last game of the Eastern Conference semifinal against the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Centre Saturday night, this just four days removed from coach Mike Sullivan declaring the Pittsburgh Penguins captain sidelined with what he unambiguously described as a concussion.
That Crosby was newly concussed on May 1st and playing over 19 minutes on the 6th is a tribute to, well, you pick: advances in the treatment of concussions, the power of prayer or pluck. While it didn’t reflect at all on neurological science, the Penguins’ 4-2 loss defined the limits of devotion and resolve. Prayer or pluck get another shot at making their cases when Pittsburgh hosts the Presidents’ Trophy winners Monday night and takes another crack at closing out the series.
After Crosby was helped off the ice in Pittsburgh in Game 3, you had reason to believe that he wouldn’t be back for the Penguins this spring. These days, caution is the watchword with the diagnosis and treatment of concussions. You would have thought that would be the case especially with the very treasure of the franchise. That Crosby was even on skates this week, never mind back in a playoff tilt, seemed the farthest thing from caution.
Whatever the NHL’s protocol on concussions is, it must be malleable for franchise players.
Crosby’s return to the Penguins lineup did make a difference.
The most obvious difference it made was on the power play. Pittsburgh took a 2-1 lead early in the second period that had Crosby as cause and catalyst. The Penguins went on the power play when defenceman Nate Schmidt mugged Crosby behind the Washington net. No. 87 just ducked under a jab from the blue liner — Schmidt had to be the only one in the arena who didn’t know that anything that coloured slightly outside the lines with Crosby was a ticket to the penalty box.
The ensuing man advantage was something drawn on a coach’s erasable board — a dizzying sequence of passes, every Pittsburgh skater touching the puck at least once, the last one being Phil Kessel, who hammered the puck home on a one-timer from the weak side. Watching it you wondered how anyone ever stops these guys.
“That goal [the power play unit] scored is an indication that they’re a talented group and when [Crosby] is out there with them they’re that much more dangerous,” coach Sullivan said.
Crosby didn’t flash Hart Trophy stuff, but then again, the Penguins were poised to win with the game he gave them: three shots, a few other scoring chances created, 15-of-23 on faceoffs.
Carrying that 2-1 lead into the third period, the Penguins had to feel good about themselves — yes, they were outshot 18-10 through 40 minutes, the play was almost comically tight. It was a stark contrast to Game 4 when they eked out a 3-2 win over Washington even though Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury was caught in the crossfire of a shooting gallery.
“I thought we had control in the second period,” said Sullivan, and even though his team mustered only three shots in the period he had a good case.
The Capitals came storming back in the third period with three even-strength goals. The Penguins sagged after Nicklas Backstrom tied the game less than three minutes in. Backstrom finished off a pass from Andre Burakovsky, who was filling the left-wing spot usually occupied by Alexander Ovechkin. Everything at that point was trending the home team’s way. The Capitals put the game to bed five minutes later on goals 27 seconds apart by Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington’s most consistently dangerous threat in this series, and the aforementioned Ovechkin, who silenced Pittsburgh fans who tauntingly chanted his name.
At the end of the game, though, you were left wondering about Crosby and this small miracle of a comeback.
Crosby said he was given clearance to play right before the game even though he said he “felt good the last few days.” He seemed at a bit of a loss to explain what type of message he was sending by playing so soon after a concussion. “[Attitudes towards concussions] have come a long way,” he said. “Everyone is trying to do their best to be more aware. That’s kind of the process for everybody.”
This is a very mixed message these days. There’s a line forming to the left for a class-action suit filed on behalf of former players who seek damages for brain injuries suffered back when no one missed a game after getting his bell rung. That process figures to be ongoing for a while.
Off Crosby’s solid if not spectacular performance on Saturday, you had reason to view Sullivan’s announcement of his star’s concussion on Tuesday with skepticism.
The announcement might have been made in error — although if the coach gets it wrong, then who knows the straight goods?
The announcement might have been an error of his own making—although you’re left scratching your head trying to figure out exactly what he and the Penguins had to gain by subterfuge.
Maybe it was something no more complicated than an attempt to rattle the Capitals, to have them believe that Crosby was done for this series.
Some but not all Capitals seemed to be skating on eggshells when Crosby came into their orbit. Like they didn’t want to be that guy.
Early on, defenceman Dmitry Orlov was one who had means and opportunity to take a shot at No. 87 but couldn’t muster a motive. A few shifts in, another Washington blue liner, Kevin Shattenkirk gave Crosby a two-hander in the back as he was skating off for a line change. And once Schmidt went to the box for manhandling Pittsburgh’s man, nothing close to a liberty was taken with Crosby.
The consensus is that the bigger, meaner Capitals play a heavy game and yet they picked their spots—and probably had to pick their spots—with Crosby Saturday night. It remains to be seen if it will play out that way in Game 6 Monday or Wednesday if the series goes the maximum route.