PITTSBURGH — Only Sidney Crosby’s doctor can tell the Pittsburgh Penguins how much damage was done by the Washington Capitals’ 3-2 overtime win against the Penguins in Game 3.
Crosby left the game at 5:24 of the first period after taking a crosscheck to the face from Washington defenseman Matt Niskanen and never returned to the game. Coach Mike Sullivan said Crosby would be “evaluated overnight” before any determination is made about his playing status.
It was difficult to tell from video replays whether Crosby suffered a head or leg injury. He was originally struck by Alex Ovechkin’s stick, and he was off balance and going down when Niskanen pushed his stick into him.
For now, the Capitals have only reduced the Penguins’ lead to 2-1 in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal. But the fallout could be greater if Crosby is out for an extended period.
“(Crosby is) fantastic,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said. “It’s a big hole. But they have a lot of resolve.”
Losing Crosby would be devastating for most teams, but the Penguins are not like most teams.
This team has already lost top defenseman Kris Letang, and is playing with backup goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
Plus, the Penguins have a tradition of overcoming injuries better than most. It’s not as if Crosby has never been injured before.
“(Persevering) is just what this team does,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “I thought our guys competed extremely hard (in Game 3).”
Sullivan said he’s “hopeful” the injury news won’t be bad. The Penguins also lost forward Conor Sheary to a facial injury in the second period and he didn’t come back, either.
“I think this group has so much character and talent that we are able to endure the injuries we have,” Sullivan said. “We’ve done it all year. They never look for an excuse. They always have a high expectation for themselves and fortunately we have some good hockey players.”
The reason why the Penguins might be able to overcome the loss of Crosby for a short period is that they still also have Evgeni Malkin.
It’s Malkin, not Crosby, who leads all NHL playoff scorers with 15 points in eight games. It was Malkin who scored with 1:53 left in regulation to trigger a comeback that forced Game 3 into overtime. As Sullivan points out, Game 3 could have gone either way. They proved in that game they can stay competitive without Crosby.
Malkin traditionally becomes more dominant when Crosby is absent.
If Crosby is out, the difficulty for Sullivan will be deciding how to reconfigure his lines. Should he break apart Malkin and Phil Kessel to give the team more scoring balance in Crosby’s absence?
“We have really liked the chemistry with Phil and (Malkin) the last few games,” Sullivan said. “They’ve been a threat on a lot of shifts. They have a whole lot of skill. They are a dangerous group and when we add Chris Kunitz on that line he adds a physical element.”
The loss of Crosby seemed to impact rookie sensation Jake Guentzel most of all. After scoring seven goals in seven games, he was limited to one shot on goal without Crosby as his center.
Living without Crosby wouldn’t be easy. “We would need players to step up,” Pittsburgh defenseman Justin Schultz said.
But the Penguins may simply be putting their best face on an alarming situation.
Schultz said he didn’t see the hit, which earned Niskanen a five-minute major and a game-misconduct.
“I just saw him lying there and it’s tough to see,” Schultz said. “He’s our best player and (the) best player in the world.”
That’s why the doctor’s report on Crosby could be a turning point in the series.