Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins leaves the ice with trainer Chris Stewart after taking a hit in the first period while playing the Washington Capitals in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG Paints Arena on May 1, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
I don’t believe Matt Niskanen skated onto the ice at PPG Paints Arena Monday night intending to behead Sidney Crosby.
But when the opportunity presented itself, the Washington defenseman (and former Crosby teammate in Pittsburgh) certainly didn’t shy away.
There’s a difference between first-degree homicide and manslaughter. But both are murder.
A five-minute penalty and ejection isn’t sufficient punishment for Niskanen’s act. But the NHL’s erroneously-named Department of Player Safety thinks so. Niskanen will play in Game 4 tonight.
Crosby is concussed, will miss Game 4 and his status after that is unlikely. That’s great news for the Capitals. They’re secretly overjoyed, and should be. That doesn’t bother me. Fake sportsmanship and pretending do.
Crosby’s left knee appeared to buckle, but that reportedly isn’t a problem. That’s testament to Crosby’s huge legs and tireless workout regimen.
What do the Penguins do if Crosby misses the rest of the series?
Lose it, probably.
Fanboy optimism aside, the Penguins – minus hockey’s best player and their top defenseman – must beat the Presidents’ Trophy winners twice more. That’s a tall order.
The Penguins persevered and won when Mario Lemieux and Joe Mullen both got hurt during the second-round series against the New York Rangers in 1992. But those Penguins had better defense and more weaponry. These Penguins are running out of bullets.
What can the Penguins do to heighten their chances?
Up front, Coach Mike Sullivan faces a big decision.
Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel have skated together during these playoffs and produced mightily. But with Crosby out, it might behoove Sullivan to create depth by splitting up his two remaining big guns. Reunite the HBK line. Put Malkin between Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist (or Bryan Rust).
Guentzel filled the net playing with Crosby. But Crosby is out. A whole host of negative trickledown is generated by Crosby’s injury.
What the Penguins shouldn’t do is retaliate.
Going after Niskanen (or Alex Ovechkin, who whacked Crosby to start dominoes falling) and turning the game into an excrement show isn’t the Penguins’ style. They’re not good at it. Lack of composure negates their talent.
In the 2012 playoffs, under the misguided stewardship of Dan Bylsma, the Penguins tried to out-Flyer the Philadelphia Flyers. That ended bad.
Just play. That’s worked up until now.
Just play. Sullivan kept his team focused after Monday night’s shenanigans, and the Penguins almost pulled out a miracle win.
Just play. That’s what the Penguins are good at.
Sullivan led by example in the media briefing following Game 3. He didn’t stir the pot. He declined comment on Niskanen’s cross-check.
What’s the point of talking about it? Things are a lot tougher now, but there is still a series to be won. The Penguins minus Crosby are underdogs, but lead two games to one with Game 4 at home.
The situation is grim, but not impossible.
Revenge is a dish best served cold – like next year, during the regular season. Winning is a more immediate way to get even, and eliminating Washington despite missing Crosby and Kris Letang would hammer a whole bunch of industrial-strength nails into the Capitals’ coffin of underachievement.
If the Capitals win this series, or even the Stanley Cup, it gets an asterisk. In a perverse way, the pressure is off the Penguins.
Unlike Sullivan, Washington Coach Barry Trotz put his foot in his mouth after Monday’s game when he labeled Niskanen’s cross-check a “hockey play.” Niskanen’s defenders say he isn’t that type of player.
Well, he is now.
Niskanen did what he did. No excuse suffices. A cross-check to the head is not a “hockey play.” That’s vague phraseology used to justify Neanderthal boorishness and eliminate the notion of malice. It’s stupid. You can’t stick somebody in the melon without some level of malice.
A player who never sold one ticket violated the rules and sidelined the player who sells all the tickets. “Hockey play,” my [expletive].
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).