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Sidney Crosby's health top priority for Penguins

Long-term outlook for captain, injured in Game 3, more important than second-round series against Capitals

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

PITTSBURGH -- Sidney Crosby's health comes first. The effect on the Stanley Cup Playoffs comes second, even though it potentially could change everything for the Pittsburgh Penguins' chances to repeat as champions.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan did not give an update on Crosby after a 3-2 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Second Round at PPG Paints Arena on Monday. He said Crosby would be evaluated overnight. The Penguins lead the best-of-7 series 2-1 with Game 4 here Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports). 

Obviously the greatest concern is that Crosby could have a concussion, considering his history with the injury and the play that caused him to leave the game 5:24 into the first period on the day he was named a Hart Trophy finalist again.


[RELATED: Complete Capitals vs. Penguins series coverage | Sidney Crosby leaves Game 3 loss to Capitals with injury]


Crosby came down the left wing on a 2-on-1 rush with teammate Jake Guentzel against Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen. As Guentzel passed the puck to Crosby, Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin came up from behind and goaltender Braden Holtby poked the puck away.

Ovechkin's stick struck Crosby's right arm, his right skate clipped the back of Crosby's left leg and his stick struck the back of Crosby's head. Crosby stumbled as he came across the crease. Niskanen raised his stick and struck Crosby in the right side of the head. Crosby fell backward, his left leg bending awkwardly.

Crosby lay on his back, rolled onto all fours, then lay flat on his stomach. He rolled onto his left side as a trainer examined him. He had to be helped up by teammates Ron Hainsey and Patric Hornqvist, then glided to the bench hunched over and walked to the locker room.

Niskanen received a five-minute major for cross-checking and a game misconduct.

The Penguins were upset. Asked if he thought the hit was malicious, Penguins forward Chris Kunitz said yes.

"I like [Niskanen] as a person," said Kunitz, who played with the Capitals defenseman in Pittsburgh from late in 2010-11 through 2013-14, as did Crosby. "I don't think it's a very nice hit. I don't think it's something this game is looking for, especially against someone that means so much to our team."

But asked directly if he intended to cross-check Crosby in the head, Niskanen said: "Absolutely not. It wasn't intentional. I've seen the replay. In Super-Slo-mo, it looks really bad. I caught him high."

I buy it.

Remember: The play did not happen in Super-Slo-mo. It happened in a split-second.

Video: WSH@PIT, Gm3: Crosby exits with injury early in 1st

My view: Ovechkin knocked Crosby off balance and was careless with his stick trying to make a defensive play. Niskanen cross-checked Crosby but did not intend to strike the head. At the very least, he did not to intend for this to happen. He did not follow through hard.

The key is that Crosby's head lowered at the moment of impact.

"I wasn't even trying to cross-check him with a serious amount of force," Niskanen said. "A collision was going to 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."

Watch the replay in real time. Did Niskanen have time to avoid Crosby's head, let alone target it?

"The ref even said it: It was a reactionary play by [Niskanen]," Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said. "The guy's coming at him falling. He's already a little bit lower, and when you see a guy coming at you, your first instinct is to put your hands up."

The NHL Department of Player Safety examined the play in detail and will have the final word. But here's the brutal truth for the Penguins: Whether Niskanen is suspended or not, it won't help Crosby's health. It won't really help their chances either. As good as Niskanen is, he doesn't have the impact Crosby does.

Crosby already has lost so much to concussions: a big chunk of his prime in 2010-11 and 2011-12; probably at least one scoring title, one Rocket Richard Trophy and one Hart Trophy; at least one run at another Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy.

Sidelined at his peak, there was talk that he would never be the same again, even that he would retire. But he came back and regained his place atop the game, winning his second Olympic gold medal for Canada, his second Hart, his second scoring title, his second Stanley Cup, his first Conn Smythe and his first World Cup of Hockey for Team Canada.

He won his second goal-scoring title this season, and he has been outstanding in the playoffs with 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in seven games entering Monday. He sparked the Penguins wins in the first two games of this series, scoring two goals in Game 1 and setting up two in Game 2, putting his team ahead by two in the second period each time.

Video: WSH@PIT, Gm3: Sullivan talks about Penguins' OT loss

Expect the Penguins to be conservative with Crosby. Their first priority is his long-term health. After that, it is his career. After that, it is this series and these playoffs.

If Crosby is out for any length of time, the Penguins face a huge challenge, even though they are ahead in this series. Goaltender Matt Murray, who started most of the playoffs when they won the Cup last season, is out with a lower-body injury and has just started skating on his own without equipment. Defenseman Kris Letang, the leader on the blue line, is out for the season with a neck injury. Forward Conor Sheary left with an injury Monday. Others have just returned from injuries.

Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury will have to continue to be brilliant. Center Evgeni Malkin will have to continue to be brilliant, as he was when he scored and set up goals with Fleury pulled in the final minutes to force overtime Monday. He leads the playoffs with 15 points (four goals, 11 assists). Everyone will have to be brilliant.

"We're hopeful first of all that that won't be the case," Sullivan said of the possibility Crosby could be out for a while. "But I think this group has so much character and talent that we're able to endure the injuries that we have. We've done it all year long. We did it again tonight. And we'll continue to do it." 

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