Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins takes a shot against Mattias Ekholm #14 of the Nashville Predators in Game One of the NHL Stanley Cup Final at PPG Paints Arena on May 29, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/NHLI via Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH -- Back when he was the coach of the Philadelphia Flyers, I asked Peter Laviolette to help me with a story about hockey scrums. We were standing in the narrow hallway outside his office, and after several minutes -- when it became clear I wasn't understanding the basic human quality that fuels retaliation -- Laviolette slowly but sternly grabbed two fistfuls of my shirt and pushed me backward down the hallway.
"Now, what do you feel like doing?" he asked.
"I kinda feel like punching you in the nose," I remember replying.
"EXACTLY!" Laviolette exclaimed, like a proud professor. "Now you understand scrums."
With that awesome exchange in mind, I traveled to Pittsburgh on Monday for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, pretty much just to see what horrors awaited Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby at the hands of the defense-led, scrappy, F-bomb-dropping Laviolette-coached Nashville Predators now within arm's reach of the hoisting the Cup.
After all, the concept of tenderizing an unstoppable talent dates back to the Hack-a-Shaq days, and in the last round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the outmatched Ottawa Senators rode their own version of the strategy -- let's call it Slash-a-Sid -- all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final.
And I must say, it was a breathtakingly brutal display of bullying that, really, only those among us who grew up with big brothers can fully appreciate. Ottawa hit Crosby with an endless, organized onslaught of abuse. They grabbed, elbowed, tripped, shoved, pushed, pulled, eye-gouged, taunted, face-washed, smothered and, well, just flat-out sat on Crosby on nearly every shift. And somehow, through it all, Crosby kept his cool, categorizing the abuse like a Delta House pledge as nothing "out of the ordinary."
What his answer sounded like to me is: Thank you, sir, may I have another?
The Senators complied, hitting Sid with every dirty trick in the book, and when that didn't work, they just started inventing stuff that would make the Hanson brothers blush. At one point, Ottawa's Marc Methot poked the Pens captain in the right shoulder with his stick like he was trying to make a Crosby kebob, while behind him on the Senators bench, Mike Hoffman squirted half the contents of his water bottle into Sid's gloves.
As you might know, hockey players are kind of obsessive about their gloves, especially the inside, and trust me, there's nothing worse than playing with a soggy, smelly mitt. What the Senators were forced to resort to with Crosby was cheap and dirty and, well, admit it, kinda awesome too. This is what most of us love about hockey -- the ruthless, inventive, hilarious, nonstop action that often takes place far away from the puck.
Of course, let's not pretend that Crosby is entirely innocent in all this. He occasionally gives out much (much) worse than he takes -- and for the most part, the refs seem to look the other way. In late March, Crosby speared the Buffalo Sabres' Ryan O'Reilly between the legs from behind so hard, O'Reilly crumpled to the ground like a dynamited building. Days later, Crosby practically slashed off Methot's pinky finger, a gruesome injury that so enraged Senators owner Eugene Melnyk that he suggested Crosby should sit until Methot healed, or grew his pinky back, I guess.
So you can see my thinking in anticipation of Game 1: If that was the level of discourse and violence between the Senators and Crosby then, dear god, what kind of exquisite uber-violence was in store in the Final?
Before Monday, the Slash-a-Sid strategy had become so renowned that Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford had called it "disgusting" and demanded the league do something to protect its star. Heck, even commissioner Gary Bettman was asked about the abuse the face of his league had taken so far in the playoffs, and, to the shock of no one, he just kinda shrugged his shoulders and said, Ya know, the playoffs are physical.
So when the game started, I was ready. I had my binoculars out and a chart set up to tally Slash-a-Sid stats with categories that included "Slash," "Head shot," "Xcheck," "Face" and the most delicious: "Other."
And midway through the first period, my stupid little chart was empty.
By the time the Penguins were up 3-0, after surviving a sluggish start, the most contact Crosby had to endure was the fist-bump, flyby celebration after each Pittsburgh goal. At that point, Crosby was skating full shifts without even being touched. I'm not exaggerating for effect here. He was untouched. Not a check, not a slash, not so much as a dirty look from the Preds' defense. Several times, in fact, I even saw Nashville players jump out of the way to avoid hitting Crosby.
Honestly, at this point it looked like Laviolette's strategy was to kill Crosby with kindness. But it turns out the old coach was just teaching me -- and the hockey world -- yet another valuable lesson.
Because right about this time, the Penguins' offense disappeared for, oh, just about 37 minutes. And during what is a veritable Ice Age in hockey time, it became crystal clear (at least to ESPN's Tal Pinchevsky, who explained it to me in the press box): The Senators and the rest of the NHL slashed and grabbed and cheap-shotted Crosby because they had to.
The Predators' skilled and speedy in-your-face defense is so talented and confident, it doesn't need to resort to that stuff.
So forget the glorious violence of Slash-a-Sid.
I think we might actually have a series for the ages here, folks, and that's way more exciting.
In the end, the only abuse Crosby faced was self-inflicted. With the Pens up 3-1, Crosby slid hard into the net during a breakaway. After flying under goalie Pekka Rinne and into the post, the Preds' Ryan Ellis even made sure Crosby was OK. With his face full of ice mist, a shocked and slightly disturbed Crosby seemed to nod and say to Ellis, "I'm OK, I'm OK."
But the truth is, Crosby was anything but unscathed.
He ended up with two assists, but his team's offense was held to 12 shots, which is the lowest total in the Final since, well, since they invented the "shot on net" stat in 1958, back when I'm pretty sure they used chain-link fence instead of Plexiglas above the boards. During the 37-minute, shotless epoch on Monday, a radio play-by-play guy behind me yelled into his mic: "Pittsburgh might get a standing ovation if they could just get a shot on net at this point."
And after the Pens' 5-3 victory, everyone from coach Mike Sullivan to center Nick Bonino to Crosby himself acknowledged that even though they won the game, Nashville's defense shook them to their core.
"We weren't very good," said Sullivan. "None of us in our dressing room are fooled by the result tonight."
Sitting at his locker with a sweat-stained cap on and black sneakers without socks, Crosby looked subdued and far different than he has at any other time during the playoffs.
The Predators barely laid a finger on him the entire game.
But Crosby looked far more frustrated, upset and worried than he has after any other bout of Slash-A-Sid.