CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — The news wasn’t wholly unexpected, given the events of the preceding 16 hours or so. Yet it landed with the dead thud of a puck into pads.
“Sid’s been diagnosed with a concussion, and he will be out for tomorrow’s game, and we will evaluate him day-to-day from there.”
These were the opening words from Mike Sullivan, coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, early Tuesday afternoon at the club’s practice facility here. They shook this city. And they shook a sport.
Now, within minutes of Sullivan’s decree that Sidney Crosby would miss Wednesday night’s fourth game of the Penguins’ suddenly hostile series against the Washington Capitals, he added: “We’re very optimistic, and we’re hopeful that we’ll get him back in a timely fashion.” But the reality is that with this player, and with this ailment, we never know when — or if — we’ll see him again.
This is already a playoff season in which we saw Alex Ovechkin — the Capitals’ version of Crosby in importance to the franchise on and off the ice — crumpled to the ice with what looked like it could be a spring-ending leg injury. And yet when the second period of that first-round game against Toronto began, Ovechkin burst through the gate and onto the ice. He hasn’t missed a shift since.
We must, then, understand that what we see (Crosby wobbling off the ice in Monday’s Game 3, not to return) and what we’re told (that he’s unavailable Wednesday) don’t necessarily mean he’s done for the series. Or the playoffs.
And yet that’s the possibility Pittsburgh dealt with Tuesday. And that’s the possibility the National Hockey League deals with, too.
There has been, and will be, parsing of the play on which Crosby, 29, was injured Monday night: Crosby with a give-and-go, first making contact with Ovechkin. Crosby, stumbling now across the crease. Crosby, vulnerable, falling into Washington defenseman Matt Niskanen, who did not have control of his stick. Crosby, getting cross-checked in the head by Niskanen and lying on the ice.
“I’m not going to comment on anything,” Penguins winger Carl Hagelin said Tuesday, immediately before commenting on the play. “But it looked like a dirty hit.”
The NHL decided the five-minute major and game misconduct issued to Niskanen were enough punishment. Whatever the assessment, these are the moments that make you seize up, Penguins fan or Caps fan or fan of, say, Swiss curling. Human decency should mean it doesn’t make a difference whether it was Sidney Crosby or Matt Cullen or Tom Kuhnhackl barely able to move, unsteady on his feet, needing help just to get up.
But in the way we judge news, and the way we weigh importance, and in the level of attention paid to hockey, it does matter. It mattered for the immediacy of Game 3, in which the Capitals beat the Crosby-less Penguins in overtime. It matters for Game 4, because now the Penguins are not just undermanned, but they will be without the player who had been — comfortably — the best player in the series, which makes sense given he’s the best player on the planet.
Crosby scored twice in Game 1, and the Penguins won. He assisted twice in Game 2, and the Penguins won again. This is what is expected at this time of year from a player of this stature. But to get a sense of his impact, listen to Sullivan, who launched into something just short of a soliloquy following Game 2.
“He’s the best 200-foot player in the game, in my estimation,” Sullivan said. “He plays at both ends of the rink. He defends as well as he plays with the puck and creates offense. He’s a committed guy right now. I think he sees an opportunity for this team to have success, and I think he leads by example.
“And when he does that, he’s inspiring to his teammates and certainly his coaching staff. I can’t say enough about Sid’s leadership. I think his play speaks for itself. But I think his leadership through his example on a daily basis and the influence that he has on our young players and the rest of our group, I can’t say enough for.”
As a fan, you’re afforded the right to despise him. You’re also allowed to think back at the times when Crosby has shown, shall we say, questionable judgment. He did, after all, whack Buffalo’s Ryan O’Reilly — how do we put this? — directly between the legs with his stick just a little more than a month ago. There are openings detractors can exploit, for sure.
And yet, listen to the people who have played with him.
“Everyone talks about how talented he is and how he’s the best player in the world, but I can say he’s hands-down the hardest-working guy I’ve ever seen in practice,” Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik, like Niskanen a former Crosby teammate in Pittsburgh, said before the series began. “ . . . I’ve played with a lot of guys that are very talented that coast through practice. That’s what makes him as good as he is. He’s that competitive every single day.”
The reality for the Capitals, now, is something that shouldn’t matter within the dressing room, but might matter in the outside assessment of the entire affair. Say Crosby is done for the series. Say the Capitals advance. You can almost feel all of Pittsburgh getting the asterisk ready, damning the result as tarnished.
That, though, is a side note. What’s important, at the moment, is the words the NHL can’t afford to have lumped together — Sidney Crosby and concussion — join each other in headlines as Game 4 awaits. Concussions are, by a wide margin, the hot-button injury across sports. Crosby is, by a wide margin, the face of hockey, its most important figure.
The only times that hasn’t really been the case: when he has been lost to head injuries. Fans here can’t extract what happened on Monday night with Niskanen from the original hit that caused Crosby a concussion, that from then-Capital David Steckel in the 2011 Winter Classic at Heinz Field. Crosby played four days later, but not again that season. He played just 22 games in 2011-12 after another concussion was complicated by neck issues. Last fall, he suffered yet another concussion in practice.
Then, he missed 2½ weeks. Two-and-a-half weeks now, and the playoffs could be over.
“It takes everyone now,” Pittsburgh rookie Jake Guentzel said. “He’s a player you can’t replace.”
Spoken for the Penguins. But spoken for all of hockey, too.
More on Crosby and the Capitals-Penguins series