Defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh’s hopes for a repeat crown suffered a major setback on Monday with a head injury to NHL goals leader Sidney Crosby in a 3-2 overtime loss to Washington.
Penguins captain Crosby, named a finalist for the NHL’s Most Valuable Player trophy earlier in the day, was helped off the ice after taking a cross-check to the head from Washington defenseman Matt Niskanen in the first period.
The 29-year-old Canadian, who led the NHL with 44 goals this season, did not return to the contest and Penguins coach Mike Sullivan had no update on Crosby’s status or condition after the game.
“I’d rather not share my opinion on it,” Sullivan said of the play that injured Crosby, who has a history of concussion complications.
The Capitals seized a 2-0 lead before the Penguins equalized with two late third-period goals only to fall on a power-play goal by Washington’s Kevin Shattenkirk 3:13 into over-time.
That trimmed the Penguins’ lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference second round series to 2-1 entering game four Wednesday in Pittsburgh.
Sullivan said he was confident the Penguins, who have overcome injuries much of the season, could cope with the setback of losing one of the NHL’s superstars for a long period of time.
“We’re hopeful that won’t be the case but I think this group has so much character and talent that we’re able to endure the injuries,” Sullivan said. “We did it tonight. And we’ll continue to do it.”
Crosby was struck in the helmet by the stick of Washington star Alex Ovechkin and was falling off-balance to the ice when he was hit solidly in the head by Niskanen.
“I hope he’s OK. I certainly didn’t mean to injure him,” Niskanen said. “I wasn’t even trying to cross check him with a serious amount of force.”
Niskanen, a former Penguin, received a five-minute major penalty and 10-minute misdonduct penalty for the blow, which he said came because Crosby was trying to make a play as he fell.
“He’s trying to make a play he’s getting lower and lower and that’s what happened there,” Niskanen said.
Capitals coach Barry Trotz defended Niskanen, saying, “I thought it was really a hockey play… he’s coming down and Nisky has to go to the back post because the puck is coming around. It’s just hockey. It’s a hockey play. Unfortunately he got hurt.”
Asked about Ovechkin’s stick to Crosby’s head, Trotz said, “Was there a penalty?” and after citing several plays concluded, “I’m not going to get into all that.”
Crosby has sparked the Penguins to two Stanley Cup titles and Canada to the past two Winter Olympic gold medals plus last year’s World Cup of Hockey crown.
But he also a history of concussions that raises major concerns of a long-term absence from the Pittsburgh lineup.
Crosby suffered severe hits to the head from Washington’s Dave Steckel and Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman within the first five days of 2011, causing concussion symptoms that sidelined Crosby the remainder of the season and playoffs.
He only played 22 regular-season games in the 2011-2012 campaign as a result of lingering symptoms.
“He’s one of the best players in the world,” Trotz said. “He’s a fantastic player. That’s a big hole no question, but they have got a lot of resolve.”
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