Matt Niskanen’s cross-check to the head of Sidney Crosby may well shift the balance of the second-round series between the Penguins and Capitals depending on if or how long one of hockey’s biggest superstars will be out with an injury.
The Pittsburgh captain was taken out of the equation less than six minutes into Monday’s Game 3 overtime loss to Washington. He was cutting across the Capitals’ goal crease and got tied up with Alex Ovechkin, sending Crosby stumbling to the ice. Niskanen made contact on his way down.
Crosby also may have tweaked his left leg on the play when it got caught awkwardly underneath him. He was shaken up and needed to be helped off the ice to the Penguins’ locker room for evaluation, where he would remain the rest of the game.
Niskanen was assessed a five-minute major and ejected for the cross-check.
Conor Sheary, one of Crosby’s wingers on the top line, also exited the game in the second period and did not return.
Afterward, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan deferred any update on his injury players’ health to Tuesday pending overnight evaluation. He told reporters “I’d rather not share my opinion” when asked about Niskanen’s hit and whether it should draw a suspension from the NHL.
Crosby was not made available to media, but a Pittsburgh radio host tweeted during the third period that Crosby was seen in a suit “walking briskly” with “no sign of a limp.”
Crosby just walked by me in the arena. Full suit. Winked at a worker and appeared to say “i”m ok.” Walking briskly. No sign of a limp.
— Tim Benz (@TimBenzPGH) May 2, 2017
In the opposite locker room, Capitals coach Barry Trotz defended Niskanen, who doesn’t carry a reputation as a dirty player and has never been suspended in 10 NHL seasons.
“I thought it was a hockey play,” Trotz told reporters. “Crosby (was) coming down. (Niskanen) just sort of ran into him.”
Niskanen called the play “unfortunate,” adding “I certainly didn’t mean to injure him.”
“I think he’s coming across, trying to score,” he said. “As he’s doing that, he’s getting lower and lower. And when it’s happening that fast, my stick and his head [collided]. I wasn’t extending, trying to hit him in the head. It happened quickly.
“I wasn’t even trying to cross-check him with a serious amount of force. A collision was gonna happen there, in the crease. When the play first starts, I think my stick’s at about his arm level, probably. Right about where the numbers are on the side of his jersey. Because he’s trying to make a play, he’s getting lower and lower, because he’s getting pressured trying to score. So the collision happened.”
Crosby, who was named a finalist for the Hart Trophy earlier Monday, has lost dozens of games in his otherwise remarkable career due to post-concussion syndrome in 2011 and two fractured vertebrae in his neck in 2012.
His latest concussion scare cost him the first six games of this past season. It was the third official concussion diagnosis of his career.
The injury-plagued Penguins were already without top defenseman Kris Letang and starting goalie Matt Murray before the series. Top-line forward Patric Hornqvist, winger Carl Hagelin and defenseman Brian Dumoulin all played in Game 3 but were game-time decisions, likely suiting up far less than 100 percent.