The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup last season in spite of being ravaged by injuries throughout the season and into the playoffs.
Matt Murray emerged as the hero and looked set to take over for long-time netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, and the Penguins looked like a legitimate threat to challenge for the Cup this spring as well. The Pens fell victim to the injury bug again this season and even started the playoffs with some big question marks as Carl Hagelin was not on the opening roster to kick off round one. In addition, the Pens were without veteran defenseman Kris Letang for the postseason and had several other players either returning from injury or very close as the playoffs rolled around.
It wasnâ€™t ideal, but the Penguins had already proven no strangers to adversity and their young guns had a way of showing up when their team needed a spark like Murray, Conor Sheary (who would leave Game 3 with an injury and remains undetermined for Game 4), and Bryan Rust who each had their turn as hero during last seasonâ€™s playoff run.
Dominoes Keep Falling
The dominoes began to fall as the Penguins were warming up for the first game of the playoffs ahead of puck drop, Murray suffered an injury that forced the Penguins to go to Fleury instead. A move many fans were uncomfortable with in spite of the veterans Stanley Cup and Vezina Trophy winning pedigree.
Fleury was about to be tested, and the Pens would need the 2009 version of their former starter more than ever. They were poised to make another deep run, but no team has won back-to-back Cups in the salary cap era. The Penguins were looking to be the first, and it seemed like a distinct possibility after several of the other favorites like Chicago, and Minnesota crashed and burned in the first round while the Penguins looked dominant and Fleury was rock solid.
The first true test would be the Washington Capitals.
The road was already made longer and more difficult by their shortened offseason, but Murray would not be the last marker to fall.
Hagelin had already been sidelined by injury in these playoffs, and Patric Hornqvist and Brian Dumoulin joined him in the category of game-time decision for coach Mike Sullivan last night. Fortunately, all three would dress for puck drop as the Penguins bench shortened considerably as the game wore on.
With the series seemingly well in hand (2-0) and the Capitals playing to this point like a team on the ropes rather than a Cup contender, the Pens were looking to land a body blow. A precision strike meant to demolish whatever confidence the Caps had left.
From Holtby to Holt-BEAST
T.J. Oshie had been neutralized after an outstanding first round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Kevin Shattenkirk was coming off his worst game since coming over in a trade from St. Louis, and Braden Holtby, well he was another story entirely.
Holtby was playing like he was the Inch High Private Eye, where in the past he has been more like ten feet tall and bulletproof.
As expected, Holtby being the reigning Vezina winner and current candidate to repeat came back fighting, and he looked more like the kevlar crease commander weâ€™ve come to expect. His confidence was evident early, and he was playing the puck more aggressively which were great signs for the Caps and their fans who have been nervously hopeful after two stunning home losses to open the series.
First Cut is the Deepest
Alex Ovechkin was also aggressive early and looked like a rocket ready to blast through anything or anyone standing between him and his chance at the Cup. Unfortunately, someone did come between him and that opportunity early on in the game.
At 5:24 into the first period, all of Pittsburgh gasped in horror.
In spite of past successes, while battling a M.A.S.H. unit of injuries, there was one loss the Penguins are unlikely to have a contingency plan for. The loss of their top center and beating heart of their team, captain Sidney Crosby.
Crosby was coming in on Holtby with speed with Ovechkin coming in hot behind him. Ovechkin delivered a borderline slash towards Crosbyâ€™s hands; I can see that getting by. He followed that up with a hi-stick to the back of the helmet, given the current state of head injuries, this one is a little tougher to give a pass on.
Finally, there is the skate contact that appears to pull Crosbyâ€™s leg out from under him, while this might have been incidental contact, all of these things together seem to make it less accident and more oops I did it again.
Cross check to Crosby's head pic.twitter.com/6iMBtLkozs
— YardsPerPass.com (@YardsPerPass) May 2, 2020
If that wasnâ€™t bad enough, and off balance Crosby careened out of control through the crease and landed at the feet of Matt Niskanen.
As many might do when they see a collision course with 200-pounds of dead weight coming at them with speed, Niskanen put his hands out to brace for the inevitable impact. It was a knee-jerk reaction with terribly unfortunate repercussions.
Niskanen wound up essentially cross checking a prone and defenseless Crosby with a direct hit to the head.
Another look at the Crosby injury. Ovechkin also got him with the stick up high & took out his leg just prior to the Niskanen hit pic.twitter.com/Z0TAbKJXyv
— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) May 2, 2020
Niskanen was given a game misconduct but is unlikely to face any supplemental discipline for his role. However, one has to wonder if the wrong player got hung out to dry as Ovechkin was clearly the catalyst in creating the dangerous situation. In fact, Niskanen was also at risk as there was little chance for him to process the situation, get out of the way, or stop Crosbyâ€™s momentum without his stick coming into contact with some part of his body.
Niskanen certainly could have been injured as well, though the dreaded lower body injury seems rather inconsequential when compared to the head injury that Crosby appeared to have suffered.
We can complain about officiating, but at the end of the day they have seconds to react and ten skaters (and two netminders) to monitor between them, they will not catch everything. Itâ€™s not possible. With the fast pace of todayâ€™s game, it would be nearly impossible to see everything, let alone always get them right. Video replay is a great addition, but it is a tool, and it is not without its flaws.
The fact is, the officials donâ€™t want to see injuries and they donâ€™t like feeling like the ball was dropped on their watch, or that the wrong call was made, but in any circumstance where there is risk involved, there will also be failures. It is part of being human.
Steel City Stunner
Crosby struggled for several uncomfortable moments, breathless and writhing on the ice before finally getting on all fours, but it was clear the second contact was made that we were witnessing a potentially catastrophic injury not only for the Penguins but also for Crosby himself.
With a history of head injuries (including the early part of the 2016-17 season), it is hard not to wonder what Crosby can handle at this point.
If you recall, he missed over half of three seasons after their 2009 Cup win, and for a time had many questioning if Sid the Kid would ever return to his pre-concussion self.
Crosby received his first concussion and would miss the remainder of the season.
After just eight games back Crosby had what was reported as a neck injury and would remain out until March 2012.
Crosby took a slap shot to the jaw suffering a few broken teeth and a fractured jaw.
Crosby suffered a concussion in practice and missed seven games.
While these were not all explicitly listed as head injuries, each are jarring impact injuries that are likely to have lasting ramifications and can begin to pile on.
Having suffered a number of head injuries myself, I can tell you that they do not get easier with time and each one is putting the player on the receiving end just a little bit closer to that point of no return.
The one where doctors advise you to stop taking the risk.
You donâ€™t have to listen I suppose, but given what we know about head injuries in both football and hockey (as well as any other sport that poses a high risk), the chance of long-term issues increases with each incident.
While Crosbyâ€™s status is yet to be determined, it certainly didnâ€™t look promising. Regardless of what happens, this is likely to be a topic for debate for months to come.
Was Crosby targeted? That will certainly be a part of the narrative if he is unable to return, or returns in some diminished capacity. And if he returns with any success, the tables will turn in on Crosby with Caps fans wondering if he embellished. It is a vicious cycle. One that is unlikely to be resolved as one side will never convince the other to see things from their perspective, or vice versa.
For Penguins fans, I certainly hope that Crosby avoided any significant head trauma. No matter how you feel about any individual player, you never want to see anyone go down with an injury that can impact their ability to play in the future or worse impact their quality of life going forward.
Any fan out there hoping for an injury that removes Crosby from the series, or the playoffs, shame on you.
Newsflash, if thatâ€™s what it takes to win, then you arenâ€™t winning. Not really.
I get it, Iâ€™ve heard the narratives for both Ovechkin and Crosby. Words get tossed around all the time. Cheapshot. Whiner. Faker. Dive Artist.
Both have been accused of many infractions with regards to playing on the edge and even perhaps their flare for the dramatic, but please keep one thing in mind the next time you wish an opposing player ill will.
There is always a possible outcome where something goes horribly wrong. This is a game of violent hits, high-velocity impacts, and little time for true premeditation given the speed with which the game is played. Do bad hits happen? Too often. Can players lay out predatory hits? You bet. Is any player susceptible? Yes.
Whether a player gets hurt in the sport of hockey is not the question. The question is how badly they will get hurt? And for how long?
The one thing we rarely take into account is that not every player gets to choose which game will be their last. I am not saying this is the end for Crosby, but appreciate every moment you have as a fan because there wonâ€™t always be a curtain call or an encore.
At the end of the day, we love to hate the players who stand in the way of our favorite teamâ€™s road to the Stanley Cup; and sometimes we hate when the teams have to face each other. Especially, in a contentious series where there is no shortage of bad blood, but while players often have horrific lapses in judgment and at times appear to have no conscience at all, there is one thing no player wants to be responsible for.
The forced retirement of a worthy adversary.