Updated May 2, 2017, 1:26 p.m.
The Washington Capitals susceptibility to completely collapsing at any moment was on full display Monday in Game 3, but at the end of the night they held on to beat the Pens 3-2 in overtime, crawling back to close the gap in the series to one game. The Caps (and their fans) are breathing a big sigh of relief, while the Pens (and their fans) are holding their collective breath, as we all await word on the health of Sidney Crosby.
Game 3 was a nail-bitter, and we’re just scratching the surface of this series. Here are five things we know going into Wednesday’s Game 4.
1. If Crosby is out long-term, the Pens are in trouble.
Sidney Crosby lying on the ice after a hit to the head is the Penguins’ worst nightmare. That became a reality after Crosby’s head collided first with Alex Ovechkin’s stick, then Matt Niskanen’s elbow early in the first period.
Niskanen had been chasing Crosby around for much of the series and was tossed from the game as a result of the hit. Regardless your opinion on the brutality of the hit and Niskanen’s intent, it’s pretty clear that Niskanen had his mind made up that he was going to hit Crosby on the play, whether the Pens’ captain was in a vulnerable position or not.
It’s a forceful contact, directly to an opponent’s head. NHL players have to control their body the same way they have to control their stick, and if they hit an opponent in the head with either, it’s a dirty play. Period.
Crosby has had a history of head injuries, including one earlier this season, which only heightens the concern. Mike Sullivan didn’t offer any updates in his postgame press conference, and the Penguins’ website offered this from Sullivan at 11:21 p.m.:
“We don’t have any updates on our injured guys,” he said following the game. “They’ll be evaluated overnight and we’ll go from there.”
Sullivan wouldn’t confirm whether Crosby’s injury was head or lower-body related.
UPDATE: The Penguins announced Crosby does have a concussion, will be out at least Wednesday and “we will evaluate him from there.”
This could be the most significant Penguins injury — all due respect to Kris Letang and Matt Murray — since the last time Crosby had a concussion, both short term in this series and long term for his career, and the team wouldn’t even confirm after the game if the injury is above or below his waist.
For what it’s worth, we at least know Crosby wasn’t completely incapacitated.
Presumably, one can walk around fairly normally with a concussion, so that tweet doesn’t do much to curb the concern of Pens fans. But still, it’s better than nothing. The concern for the knee stemmed from, well, just look at this photo:
Any time Crosby is in the Penguins’ lineup, they’re a better team — that much is obvious. And if Crosby is going to be out for an extended period, his loss is immeasurable, and it will only make the Penguins’ path to repeat as Stanley Cup champs that much steeper. That, too, we all know.
What we don’t know is how far the Penguins can go without their captain, the best player on this planet. They overcame the loss of Crosby and a 2-0 deficit to force overtime in Game 3, but there are no moral victories in the NHL playoffs. The Pens are used to moving forward and dealing with their most important players being out due to injury, but this is the ultimate test.
2. Next man up
That’s been Mike Sullivan’s go-to response to any Penguins’ player being lost to injury since he took over this job last season. If Crosby is going to miss time, that next man is going to have to be Evgeni Malkin.
Malkin has quietly led the NHL in scoring this postseason, but there was nothing quiet about his performance once Crosby left Game 3. His goal with less than two minutes to play brought the Pens within one:
And he was there again 48-seconds later — this time making a tough pass to assist on Justin Schultz’s game-tying goal:
It was the sixth multi-point game for Malkin in these playoffs.
We don’t know how long Crosby will be out — if at all — but we do know the small concession is Malkin is on top of his game. Regardless of Crosby’s status, the Penguins are going to need this version of Malkin to continue to make his presence felt.
And while we’re on the subject of players stepping up…
3. Marc-Andre Fleury, still incredible
The Pens’ late rally wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for Marc-Andre Fleury, who again was lights-out in Game 3. His 30 saves kept the Pens in the game, and none was more impressive than this save at the end of the second period.
Fleury has made some ridiculous saves in his career, but that one may take the cake.
Despite the loss, Fleury’s save percentage now stands at .933 this postseason. While Malkin becomes the man the Pens’ offense will look to without Crosby, perhaps no Penguin becomes more valuable now than MAF.
We knew the Pens were going need Fleury when Matt Murray went down. Murray just resumed skating on his own, but doesn’t appear to be anywhere close to returning. At this point, I’m not sure it even matters. Fleury has taken full control of the job as starting goaltender, and right now the Pens may need him more than ever.
4. The Caps are still in trouble.
If the first thing we know is the Pens are in trouble if Crosby is out long-term, we also know that doesn’t mean the Caps are off the hook in this series.
Washington got the win in Game 3, and the positives surrounding their performance end right there. The Penguins once again showed their resiliency, sticking right with Washington despite being down to only 10 forwards — Conor Sheary also left after colliding with teammate Patric Hornqvist. Even without Crosby and Sheary, the game could have gone either way after the Caps blew a late 2-0 lead.
Historically, the Pens have won plenty of games without Crosby in the lineup — it’s incredibly bizarre their record without him is somehow better — and their depth has long been one of their biggest strengths. Not to mention adversity is something they’ve grown accustomed to dealing with.
Life without Crosby wouldn’t be ideal, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world, either, as far as this series is concerned.
The fact remains the Caps are still down 2-1 in the series, with Game 4 in Pittsburgh, where the Pens have won 10 of the last 13 playoff games against the Caps. The Pens are a better team at home, and a win in Game 4 would put the Caps in a hole they wouldn’t be able to escape.
If we learned anything from the end of Game 3, it’s that the Pens’ mental advantage over the Capitals is still alive and well. And even though the Caps found a way to win in the end, the seed of doubt was planted in regulation, before the game was decided.
5. Buckle up for Game 4.
The hatred these two teams have for one another is hitting new levels of palpability. Late, heavy hits have become more prominent as the series has gone on; along with slashes, high-elbows, cross-checks, post-whistle scrums, and just about any other type of extra-curricular activity you can imagine when you think about playoff hockey has been on full-display.
Again, we don’t know the extent of the Crosby injury just yet, but we do know news of a long-term loss would just be adding more fuel to this fire. Even if Crosby is going to be able to play in Game 4, the intensity between the two teams has been ratcheted up for each game and we have no reason to suspect that will change.
We do know the officials have been loose with their enforcement of the rules so far:
We’ll have to wait until Wednesday night to see how they handle Game 4. It’s probably safe to assume they’ll have their hands full.