PITTSBURGH — A shot from the point by Washington’s Kevin Shattenkirk salvaged — or at the very least, extended — his team’s season.
A far different kind of shot may end up determining the outcome of a playoff series growing more contentious by the shift.
Shattenkirk’s goal 3:13 into overtime lifted the Capitals to a 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins to cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 2-1 in the Eastern Conference semifinal, one that could go on without Penguins star Sidney Crosby.
The Pittsburgh captain left just over 5 minutes into the game after getting cross-checked to the head by Washington’s Matt Niskanen. The NHL’s leading scorer and one of the game’s best players did not return and his status for Wednesday’s Game 4 — and maybe the rest of the post-season — is uncertain.
"Certainly didn’t mean to injure him," said Niskanen, who spent four years with Crosby in Pittsburgh before signing with Washington in 2014. "It’s an unfortunate play that happened really quick."
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said Crosby will be evaluated on Tuesday. Even without Crosby, Pittsburgh pushed Washington to the limit. Evgeni Malkin and Justin Schultz scored in a 48-second span with less than 2 minutes left in regulation to force overtime.
For once Washington, whose 43-year franchise history is littered with playoff collapse after playoff collapse, dominated the extra period before Shattenkirk’s flip zipped by Marc-Andre Fleury’s blocker to send his teammates pouring over the boards in celebration.
"Tonight was a great test for all of us," said Shattenkirk, who played miserably during a blowout loss in Game 2. "There were a lot of different moments in the game where we had to see what we were made of."
One frightening moment, however, will resonate above all others.
The game was scoreless early in the first period when Crosby skated just outside the Capitals’ crease. Washington’s Alex Ovechkin slashed Crosby along the upper body and Crosby slid awkwardly trying to maintain his balance when he collided with Niskanen, who had his stick raised.
The stick caught Crosby flush across the mouth and the two-time Hart Trophy winner laid on the ice in pain for several moments before slowly skating off under his own power as Pittsburgh trainers searched the area for Crosby’s teeth.
Niskanen earned a major penalty for cross-checking and was given a game misconduct. Washington coach Barry Trotz called it "a hockey play." Niskanen allowed it looked "really bad" when he caught the replay, but stressed there was no malicious intent.
His former teammates weren’t buying it.
"It’s one of those things you look at it once, you see what actually happened and the next thing is watching how deliberate it was when the guy cross-checks him in the face," Pittsburgh forward Chris Kunitz said. "I thought all of that was kind of out of this league, but I guess not."
This wasn’t the first time Crosby took an ugly shot to the head from a Capital. Crosby was in the middle of an MVP run on Jan., 1, 2011, when he took an elbow to the head from Washington’s David Steckel during the Winter Classic, leading to a concussion that cost Crosby the better part of two years in his prime as he struggled to recover.
Their captain gone for the rest of the game and perhaps longer, the Penguins appeared momentarily dazed as they tried to regroup.
Washington took a 2-0 lead early in the third period behind goals by Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetzov, rare moments of flow during a static and occasionally ugly three periods that tried to make up in physicality what it lacked in pace of the frenetic opening two games in Washington.
"That’s what you have to do in the playoffs," Capitals forward T.J. Oshie said. "You have to play physical and grind it out. We’re trying to make this a long series here and the physicality is key for us."
Braden Holtby, yanked after a sloppy second period in Game 2, remained steady during Pittsburgh’s second-period surge and the Capitals appeared to be in control when the Penguins pulled Fleury with 3 minutes to go. Then Malkin scored with 1:53 remaining and Schultz tied it 48 seconds later when his blast from the point deflected off Oshie.
No matter. Washington dominated the extra period before Shattenkirk delivered his first goal of the playoffs.
"We came here to win two games," Shattenkirk said. "And next game is going to be even tougher."
Though maybe not as tough as it could be for Pittsburgh if Crosby’s familiar No. 87 is out of the lineup.
NOTES: The Capitals went 2 for 5 on the power play. The Penguins were 0 for 5. … Pittsburgh F Conor Sheary left in the second period after colliding with teammate Patric Hornqvist and did not return. … Penguins G Matt Murray is skating, but there is no timetable for his return to practice. Murray suffered a lower-body injury during warmups before Game 1 of Pittsburgh’s first-round series against Columbus. … Washington D Karl Alzner played 21:34 after returning from a six-game absence because of a groin injury.