Washington Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen crosschecked Sidney Crosby in the head, Monday, taking out the Pittsburgh Penguins star and possibly the Penguins chance to win the series. The Penguins now hold a fading 2-1 series lead.
Just over five minutes into a hockey game which followed a closed-door team meeting, Saturday, the Capitals changed their Round 2 series against the Penguins. Sidney Crosby was injured on a sequence in front of the Capitals net which began with a slash to the upper body from Alex Ovechkin immediately followed by a crosscheck to the head by Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen. Niskanen’s crosscheck drew a five-minute major penalty and 10-minute Game Misconduct penalty.
Bam. Just like that, the wounded Penguins which found ways to win the first two games of the series were without the game’s best player, their captain, and offense driver. And could be for some time. Crosby laid motionless on the ice and struggled to his feet with the help of teammates and the trainer.
He did not return to the game.
The Capitals, who dressed seven defensemen with the return of Karl Alzner, were forced to go without a top 4 defenseman who has been frequently victimized by the Penguins offensive rush. Fair trade, sure.
Yet the Penguins still nearly managed to snatch victory from Capitals. The Penguins scored two goals in the final three minutes to force overtime but yielded a power play goal by Kevin Shattenkirk. The Capitals survived, 3-2, and have changed the series with one of hockey’s oldest strategies: Take out the other team’s best player.
In this case, the Capitals assault on Crosby likely went further than planned. Niskanen clearly was not racing to meet Crosby with a crosscheck… to the head. Niskanen’s hands were not in crosscheck position as Crosby stumbled across the Capitals crease, but they did finish in that position as Niskanen followed through when his stick met Crosby’s head.
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From the video evidence, Niskanen–whom Jake Guentzel swiftly skated passed to create the offensive chance–was coming to hit Crosby. Crosscheck to the ribs? Shoulder to the back? Niskanen was coming for Crosby, but before he got there, Crosby was felled by Ovechkin’s swinging stick.
Niskanen still had a moment to NOT hit Crosby in the head. Niskanen continued on his path and even leaned into it. The Capitals, despite a 2-1 series deficit, now control the series if Crosby is out or impaired.
Opinion and Niskanen’s Admission
I’ve seen it too many times. I’ve been around it, on both sides. Players decide they will change their fortunes by “being tougher” the other team’s best player, or players. Specific instructions aren’t needed. All involved know it means extra hits away from the play, extra whacks on the back of the legs, maybe a good two-handed slash, or three. It’s not a specific intent to “take out” the other player, but if that player is injured in the process, so be it.
This one got out of control. With the seed planted (likely in the closed door meeting and re-enforced in the room), Niskanen took his shot and it turned out worse than he intended.
Niskanen’s postgame comments were sullen, dejected, and offered more denial than objection. In fact, Niskanen tacitly admitted he was going to crosscheck Crosby, “I wasn’t even trying to crosscheck him with a serious amount of force.”
And there it is. When you spin a story, there is usually a little slip. Niskanen was going to hit Crosby, maybe just a little crosscheck across the back, but had a chance to put one on Crosby and took it.
To catch Crosby, Niskanen had to square his shoulders and alter his stance. He had time to do that. And he had time to avoid that. If he simply used his hands to “finish” off Crosby’s stumble, it would have been tough hockey. But he used the stick. And followed through.
Take out the other team’s best player. The strategy is as old as it is sickening.
It is hard to image the Penguins beating the President’s Trophy winning Capitals without Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby, even spotted a two-game lead. AND THAT WAS THE POINT.
That potential Crosby vs. McDavid or Subban Stanley Cup Final? Possibly gone because the Capitals needed to win Game 3. Your move, NHL.
Chris Kunitz told reporters it was a hit he thought players had eradicated from hockey. Kunitz also responded on the ice. He was a noticeable offensive force on Evgeni Malkin‘s left wing. Kunitz had a goal taken away by coach’s challenge for goaltender interference, late in the first period.
Kunitz also had–termed by Capitals coach Barry Trotz–a “predatory hit” on TJ Oshie and another on Nick Backstrom. Neither Oshie or Backstrom, were shaken up by the hits.
Trotz also called Niskanen’s hit a “hockey play”.
The hits were late and worthy of interference. One earned a penalty. However, neither hit was a vicious head-shot on a defenseless player. Nor involved a stick.
Life Without Crosby
Marc-Andre Fleury was spectacular, again. But the Penguins will need offense.
Those hopes now likely rest with Evgeni Malkin. Head coach Mike Sullivan was asked about breaking Malkin-Kessel to balance the lines if Crosby is indeed out for an extended length of time. Sullivan didn’t specifically answer the question but did seem to indicate he really liked that pair together.
Malkin has put up points but also struggled through the playoffs. Last night was a prime example. Malkin set up Kunitz’s disallowed goal and scored the Penguins first goal with a blistering shot from the right circle. Malkin also struggled to maintain composure and seemed to fight the puck.
He wasn’t smooth.
Head coach Mike Sullivan was asked about breaking Malkin-Kessel to balance the lines if Crosby is indeed out for an extended length of time. Sullivan didn’t specifically answer the question but did seem to indicate he really liked that pair together.
Conor Sheary was also injured in the second period, after colliding with teammate Patric Hornqvist. Sheary attempted to play a physical game but was caught chasing a hit, which resulted in the collision.
Game 4 is Wednesday. Tonight, NBCsn will be televising other playoff series, including Texaco vs. BP and Midas vs. NTB, in garage league action.