One aspect of the “hockey play” that resulted in Sidney Crosby’s concussion that hasn’t been discussed much is the fact that there’s a good chance the Pittsburgh Penguins would be going into Game 4 Wednesday night against the Washington Capitals with a 3-0 stranglehold on the series. Think about it. The game ended 3-2 in overtime, thanks in large part to the Capitals once again getting a case of the yips. The way Crosby had been playing in these playoffs, would he have not been a good bet to score or at least set up one goal in the first 60 minutes of the game?
But that’s the least of the Penguins’ concerns right now. Crosby is concussed, for at least the fourth time in his career. And while the Penguins all expressed optimism that he would be back soon, the fact is nobody on the planet can pinpoint when he’ll be healthy enough to play again. He could miss Game 4 and be back in the lineup and be back when the teams meet again in Game 5. He could miss the rest of this series. He could miss the rest of these playoffs. In fact, there’s a chance he could never play again. It’s impossible for even concussion experts to determine. And one thing is certain, Crosby will not be back playing until he is 100 percent healthy. Crosby is not a fourth-line player desperately clinging to a spot in the lineup, and his legacy is secure, with or without a Stanley Cup in 2017.
It’s funny how the establishment mantra has been that this was a “hockey play.” That, of course, is laughable. Because if it had been a hockey play, Matt Niskanen wouldn’t have been penalized at all for it. The referees on the ice saw it as crosschecking, first as a minor, then a major. So he crosschecked Crosby. Full stop. Niskanen got the shaft of his stick up because the culture of the NHL has taught him that this is an acceptable way to brace himself. There is no hard data to prove this, but your trusty correspondent would venture to guess that the ratio of penalties called to those ignored is larger for crosschecking than any other infraction in the rulebook. This happened because the NHL allowed it to happen.
Again, though, this is no longer the Penguins’ concern. They must move on from this as though arguably the best player in the world will not be available to them for the remainder of the Stanley Cup tournament. They will have to continue on, as they have done so many times without Crosby in the lineup. But consider this. Has a team ever won a Stanley Cup without its leading scorer, No. 1 defenseman, and No. 1 goaltender in the lineup? That’s an extremely tall order, even for a team as good as the Penguins.
Not only does Crosby’s injury leave them without their best player, it carries residual effects down the roster. The power play, which struggled mightily in Game 3 without Crosby, will undoubtedly be diminished. Will a player such as Jake Guentzel, who leads all NHLers in the post-season with seven goals, be nearly as effective without Crosby on the ice with him? But here’s the thing with the Penguins. They’ve been so accustomed to dealing with injuries that there is not a team in the NHL that is better equipped to deal with the loss of key personnel than they are.
“We’ve got a good hockey team here,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan told reporters Tuesday. “We love the (resilience) that this team shows in the face of adversity. They always respond the right way. There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll do that again.”
A couple of things are going to have to happen, all of them possible. First, it’s obvious that Evgeni Malkin, who leads the playoffs in scoring, is going to have to continue to play the way he has, even better. He has the ability to drive the power play and has exhibited and penchant for being more productive when Crosby is not in the lineup. He has 1.32 points per game when Crosby is not in the lineup, compared to 1.15 when Crosby dresses. In Game 3, he willed the Penguins back into the game, scoring their first goal and assisting on Justin Schultz’s game-tying goal. He shoots more and is more accurate with the shots he takes. As good as he has been in the playoffs, he’s going to have to be better.
Marc-Andre Fleury, who has emerged as an early front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy, will have to continue to be a backbone. With the Penguins no longer getting the matchups they’d like to have, there’s a very good chance the Nicklas Backstrom line is going to get more good looks in this series. Going back to last year’s playoffs, Crosby has become the most complete player the league has seen since Steve Yzerman and it was his line that was out most often against the Backstrom unit. The defensive tandem of Ron Hainsey and Brian Dumoulin has emerged as the Penguins’ shutdown unit and will have to continue their unspectacular, but vital play.
And most of all, the Penguins can’t get caught up in the hysteria surrounding the Crosby injury. It’s one thing to dress Tom Sestito for a regular season game against Winnipeg, it’s clearly another to lose their focus in the playoffs and focus on revenge. The Penguins will never, ever win the physical battle against the Capitals because they’re not built to do that. But they can continue to sting them with their speed game. The best revenge the Penguins could have right now would be to put the Capitals away and continue their dominance over them without their best player.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that according to franchise historian Bob Grove, the Penguins are 101-56-19 all-time without Crosby in the lineup. That’s because even without Crosby, they’re an elite team in the NHL. When Crosby missed most of Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup final, Max Talbot came through with two goals to deliver the victory. Something like that can happen again. If the Penguins can get by the Capitals, their road to repeating as Stanley Cup champion will include, at best, the fifth-best team in the Eastern Conference and the third-best in the Western Conference.
They can do this without Crosby. If they get him back, they might just be unstoppable.
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