Game 3 of the Capitals-Penguins second-round series contained multitudes: There was a two-goal Capitals lead, a furious Penguins rally to tie the game in the final two minutes, and a sudden-death winner three minutes into overtime by Washington’s Kevin Shattenkirk to win Monday’s game 3–2 and narrow the series gap to 2–1.
But the most urgent postgame topic was what happened to no. 87 in black five minutes into the first period.
Mistake or malice? The way you view Sidney Crosby’s injury — the extent of which as of now remains unclear — largely depends on which team you support.
“I certainly didn’t mean to injure him,” said Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen, who could face discipline on top of the five-minute major penalty and ejection assessed at the time of the incident. “It’s an unfortunate play that happened really quick.”
Naturally, Penguins forward Chris Kunitz — who knows what malicious hits look like, given how often he’s delivered them — disagreed. “It’s one of those things that you look at it once and you see what actually happened and I think the next thing is watching how deliberate it was when the guy cross-checks him in the face,” he said. “I thought all of that was kind of out of this league, but I guess not.”
Capitals coach Barry Trotz: “I thought it was really a hockey play. … [Crosby] just sort of ran into [Niskanen]. … Unfortunately he got hurt.” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, curtly: “I’d rather not share my opinion on it.” On social media and message boards, Caps fans rushed to defend Niskanen; Pens fans were left apoplectic with rage. One notable Pittsburgh columnist even suggested that it was Alexander Ovechkin at fault, claiming the Russian star “went after Crosby’s head” prior to Niskanen’s hit. Game 4 is on Wednesday, and suddenly the entire tenor of the series has changed.
As with all things Caps-Pens, there is a history here. In the 2011 Winter Classic, David Steckel inadvertently — or purposely, depending on who you ask — blindsided an unsuspecting Crosby, which led to the Penguins centerman missing the rest of the season and the first 20 games of the following campaign with a concussion. If Monday’s hit is indeed another head injury for Crosby, then there is serious cause for concern not only for Pittsburgh, but also for the entire league. The NHL has shown an increasing lack of tolerance for any contact to the head; if the league’s golden boy is knocked out of the playoffs with another concussion, there will undoubtedly be ramifications. Niskanen may take the fall.
Would the Penguins even risk playing Crosby in Game 4, still up a game in the series? Will Niskanen, Washington’s best defenseman in the postseason thus far, be suspended? (Update: He won’t be.) The story lines keep multiplying. An already injury-depleted Pittsburgh lost not only Crosby but also forward Conor Sheary, who was hurt by friendly fire in the second period — and yet, the Pens still managed to extend the game into overtime. The Caps, against all probability and historical demons, somehow won. And a rivalry that was already intense has now become one of the most bitter in all of sports.
This story has been updated with the news that Matt Niskanen won’t have a hearing.