No Suspension for Niskanen after Hit on Crosby* UPDATE: Crosby Concussed

UPDATE 1:35 PM ET / 10:35 AM PT: Pittsburgh Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan confirms that Sidney Crosby has a concussion and will miss Game 4.

Uncertainty and anger are the words of the day surrounding the Capitals/Penguins series after the game’s greatest player is injured.

Often, the NHL focuses too much on injury when determining the severity of punishment for an offending player. In the case of Matt Niskanen’s hit on Sidney Crosby, the reverse is true.

Niskanen caught Crosby with a high stick at 5:24 of the first period a split second after Alex Ovechkin’s slash knocked the Penguins’ captain off balance. Niskanen’s stick, about elbow-height, caught the oft-concussed Crosby’s head as he toppled to the ice.

Niskanen was given a major penalty for cross-checking, which carries a game misconduct with it.

Amongst some members of the Pittsburgh media, the reaction was predictable.
“Out of desperation, the Washington Capitals could have dug deep and turned to their star winger to score a goal or a defenseman to prevent one,” wrote Kevin Gorman of the Tribune-Review. “Instead, they resorted to one of hockey’s cheapest tricks: take out the opponent’s best player.”

Capitals coach Barry Trotz also offered a predictable explanation.

“Well I thought it was really a hockey play. Because if you look at it, Sid’s coming across and (Caps goalie Braden) Holtby throws his stick out there. He sort of gets split and he’s coming down, and (Niskanen) has to go to the back post because that’s where the puck’s going. And other than he just sort of ran into him. There’s no reaction to it. Unfortunately Sid got injured there, but I don’t know if a guy in that situation — if you want a guy to throw his hands over head. It’s just hockey. It’s a hockey play. Unfortunately he got hurt.”
Pittsburgh media guy Rob Rossi went further, grilling Capitals coach Barry Trotz during his postgame comments, a terse exchange the result:

“Barry, is the play by Alex that led to Sid sort of staggering into Niskanen — where he appeared to get the stick up toward the face — is that a hockey play?” Rossi asked.

“Was there a penalty?” Trotz asked. “I don’t understand.”

“Does there have to be a penalty to (not) be a hockey play?” Rossi countered. “I’m just asking. Is it a hockey play also?”

“I’m not going to defend anything,” Trotz said.

“You want me to defend Alex? Then is (Chris) Kunitz’s predatory hit on (T.J.) Oshie okay? Or the one on (Nicklas) Backstrom, is that okay? I’m not gonna debate about all that stuff. So that’s a terrible question.”

“I was just asking about the stick,” Rossi said. “So, no? So, no, Barry?”

“Next,” Trotz said. “You got your answer.”

Niskanen, who played with Crosby from 2011-14, denied intentionally hurting Crosby:

“It wasn’t intentional. I’ve seen the replay. In super slow-mo, it looks really bad. I caught him high. I think he’s coming across trying to score. As he’s doing that, he’s getting lower and lower, and when it’s happening that fast, you know, my stick and his head collided. I wasn’t extending trying to hit him in the head. It happened quickly.

“I wasn’t even trying to cross check him with a serious amount of force. 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. Because he’s trying to make a play, he’s getting lower and lower, because he’s getting pressured, trying to score, so the collision happened there.”

“I hope he’s OK. I certainly didn’t mean to injure him.”

Niskanen’s intent is highly debatable. The recklessness is not.

There was no need for the Caps defenseman to take his lumber to Croby at that moment. In fairness, this all happens at breakneck speed. But with respect to protecting players on the ice–not just star players like Crosby, but any players–the NHL’s Supplemental Discipline crew dropped the ball by not suspending Niskanen for at least a game or two if for no other reason than to send the message to players that they need to watch their sticks, no matter the intent.

That Crosby was concussed in 2011 at the Winter Classic by then-Capitals forward David Steckel only adds to the drama. Crosby missed the better part of two seasons–during Niskanen’s time as Crosby’s teammate, no less–limited to 63 of 164 regular season games from 2010-12 due to concussions, a chain of events started by Steckel’s hit, then another from Viktor Hedman of Tampa in the next game. He’s had a checkered history with a slew of injuries throughout his certain Hall of Fame career. That he’s still the best player on the planet is remarkable.

But it raises the question of whether he’s headed for the Peter Forsberg or Bobby Orr category of all-time greats whose careers have been shortened by injuries.

As for Pittsburgh’s current playoff run in defense of its title, there is a parallel here with Penguins legend Mario Lemieux. In 1992, Lemieux was slashed across the hand by Rangers forward Adam Graves, which broke a bone in his left hand, and caused him to miss the remainder of an early-round series. However, he returned and the Penguins went on to win the Stanley Cup.

This injury is far more foreboding for the game’s greatest player, who could be facing a serious situation that will force him to miss much more time than did Lemieux 25 years ago.

Where this Caps/Pens series goes from here is anyone’s guess, but the referees will certainly have more on their hands in Game 4.

Here’s a thorough look at Crosby’s injury history from SB Nation.

FURTHER UPDATE, MAY 3 8:56AM PT: Paul Coffey offered the opinion that the league should look at Alex Ovechkin’s hit on Crosby.

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