The Washington Capitals held a players’ only meeting after losing Game 2 on home ice, a loss which put them in a serious hole and severely compromised their hopes of winning a Stanley Cup. At that point in the series, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby had, as usual, been the Capitals kryptonite. In the first two games, Crosby had two goals and two assists, five shots, won 28 of his 54 faceoffs and even blocked two shots.
Nobody but the Capitals knows what was said in that meeting, but it makes you wonder, doesn’t it? Did Crosby’s name come up? Did someone maybe mention that the Capitals had to pay a little more attention to him? Hard to imagine that one of the best players in the world, the same one who was rightly named one of the finalists of the Hart Trophy prior to Game 3 Monday night, was not mentioned.
Then just 5:24 into Game 3, at the end of Crosby’s third shift of the game, he lay motionless on the ice at the PPG Paints Arena and had to be helped off. It didn’t look good. Not good at all. Nobody was saying whether it was Crosby’s left knee or his head, or both, that was injured, but the prospect of Crosby coming back and playing soon looks pretty grim. If that happens, the Penguins still might get past the Capitals because to this point in the playoffs the Capitals have proved time and again that they simply don’t have what it takes to be a champion. However, the chances of the Penguins winning two more rounds without Crosby, Kris Letang and Matt Murray are not great.
So it turns out that when Alex Ovechkin slashed Crosby, not once but twice, as Crosby cut to the net, then Matt Niskanen accidentally but recklessly got his stick up into Crosby’s face, the Capitals may very well have succeeded in having a profound effect on the Stanley Cup tournament, even if they’re not the ones who will win it. Neither Niskanen nor Ovechkin will receive any further discipline and we’ll all go on our merry way, comfortable in our attitude that Crosby’s a star player who should expect to receive more attention from opponents who aren’t as gifted, single-mindedly dedicated and passionate about their craft as he is.
All of which, of course, is absurd. It would be like saying Bryce Harper should fully expect to be subject to more fastballs around the head than other players, that Tom Brady should once in a while expect and absorb a late hit if he admires one of his passes, that LeBron James should expect to be shoved in the back a couple of times a game when he goes for a lay-up.
Every other sport protects not only its stars, but its rank-and-file better than the NHL. Much of the discussion around this incident was around Niskanen and it was generally agreed that Niskanen’s actions were reactionary, that he had no choice but to get the shaft of his stick up, that it was an unfortunate result. But what few were discussing was what led to the whole thing, which were the slashes by Ovechkin. If Ovechkin doesn’t take his stick to Crosby twice, there’s a good chance none of this happens.
But remember, Crosby is a star player who should expect that kind of treatment. The same way Connor McDavid should be prepared for a going over and Johnny Gaudreau should just accept that he’s going to get slashed across the wrists multiple times per game and if he gets hurt, it’s because he’s wearing gloves that don’t have enough cuff.
Again, it’s all so absurd. And it’s all so NHL. The rest of the game became a gong show and now the remainder of a series that should have been celebrated for the skill and talent of the players in it will now likely devolve into a down-and-dirty series of acts of vengeance. Wow, you can almost hear the cheers from the NHL head office from here.
And this is happening because the culture of the game allows it to. Niskanen is absolved of any wrongdoing because reckless play is accepted. Ovechkin, who didn’t even receive a minor on the play, gets off Scot-free because the casual slash has become such a part of the game that it’s basically accepted as a hockey play. Watch any forward try to establish position in front of the net. Chances are, he’ll be crosschecked, multiple times if we’re talking about Marc Staal defending that area. The back referee will be standing there watching the whole thing unfold and not raise his arm or blow his whistle. It’s almost as though the NHL has removed crosschecking from its rulebook.
I’ve said it before and I will say it again. This game will never drag itself out of the dark ages until fewer, not more, former players start holding the levers of power. Hockey has more former players in positions of power than any other professional sport and as long as that is the case, players of Crosby’s ilk are simply going to have to put up with the abuse or be labeled as entitled whiners who want special treatment.
Twenty-five years ago this coming Friday, Adam Graves slashed Mario Lemieux and broke Lemieux’s wrist in a playoff game. Lemieux later claimed the slash was premeditated and that, “there was a contract out on me in that game. I’m not saying (former Rangers coach) Roger Neilson told Graves to go after me, but he told his players to go after me.” And 45 years ago this fall, Team Canada assistant coach John Ferguson told Bobby Clarke that Soviet star Valeri Kharlamov was killing them during the Summit Series and had to be stopped. Clarke responded by two-handing Kharlamov across the ankle and becoming a national hero in the process.
As Crosby lay on the ice, those who love this kind of stuff clucked their tongues and talked about how nobody wants to see this sort of thing happen. I call bull. It’s this kind of stuff that those old boys suck up like oxygen and it kills the game. If Crosby is out for the playoffs, the NHL and fans of skilled hockey lose again. And the culture of violence, once again, comes out on top and unscathed.
Carry on, then.
THE LATEST HOCKEY NEWS PODCAST: