PITTSBURGH — Life without Sidney Crosby is the new reality for the Pittsburgh Penguins as they prepare to host the Washington Capitals tonight in Game 4 of their second-round playoff series (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 7:30 p.m. ET).
With his team leading the best-of-seven matchup two games to one, the Canadian hockey star and Penguins captain is out indefinitely after suffering his latest concussion.
As much as the Penguins rely on Crosby's unmatched abilities, his teammates were saying all the right things in advance of tonight's game.
"We believe in each other," Phil Kessel said after the morning skate. "We have a deep group here and a lot of good players."
Kessel acknowledged that each and every member of the Penguins is going to have to step up to fill the somewhat unfillable void left by the absence of the NHL's goal-scoring champion.
"We've had this before and we just keep going," Kessel said, perhaps referring to Crosby's six-game absence at the start of the season due to a concussion.
Veteran defenceman Ian Cole also talked about the sense of belief in the dressing room right now.
"We're very confident in our team and that our team can band together and get the job done against anyone," he said.
Cole didn't shy away, though, from admitting how difficult it is to lose their captain and leader.
"He's the best hockey player in the world. He does everything so well. You look at his defensive play, play through the neutral zone, the way he holds onto the puck in the offensive zone. There's just so much he does that impacts the game," Cole said.
There have been a lot of questions asked about whether the Penguins feel the need to retaliate against Matt Niskanen, the Capitals defenceman whose hit to the head sidelined Crosby. But Cole said it's not the approach the team needs to take.
"I don't think you can get too emotional about it. You have to fight through every obstacle. Getting too emotional or too fired up about it will only take you off what you're trying to do as a team."
With both Crosby and forward Conor Sheary lost to concussions, the Penguins have had to shift their lineup in advance of tonight's game. After the morning skate, players were still left guessing about who they would be playing with.
Head coach Mike Sullivan wouldn't tip his hand as to what the roster and lineup combinations would look like.
"Every possibility is on the table in this type of circumstance," he said. "I believe that this group of players has a chance to win against any team."
When pressed about what Crosby's absence means going into tonight's game, Sullivan was quick to fire back with a vote of confidence for his players.
"We're not so much focused on who's not in our lineup," the coach said. "We're focused on who's in our lineup tonight and those guys are going to help us win a game."
Sullivan said the team is going to use home-ice advantage and the intensity of Stanley Cup playoff hockey to motivate them tonight.
"We feel comfortable in this environment. Our players feel they have an edge at home," Sullivan said.
"As a player, as a coach, this is the most exciting time to be a part of hockey. Our players are inspired and energized by it."
Niskanen expresses 'regret'
Two days after the hit that gave Crosby a concussion, Niskanen talked to reporters about the play.
"I regret that it happened," said Niskanen, who received a major penalty and game misconduct for the hit but avoided further discipline by the NHL.
"In hindsight I wish I had one hand on my stick and my hands were way down. But the collision happened fast and Sid's trying to score a goal."
Niskanen and Crosby played together on the Penguins for more than three years. He was visibly shaken as he spoke to reporters about hitting Crosby.
"When I was here I got a long with him really well. He's a great leader. Good teammate. I always stood up for him when I was here," he said.
"My intent was to not forcefully cross-check him in the face."
The hit has been widely debated over the past two days, with some calling it a hockey play gone unfortunately wrong and others labelling it a dirty play with intent to injure.
Washington star Alexander Ovechkin weighed in this morning.
"This stuff happens," he said. ""It's hockey. It's hard to a see a player go down and hard to see him get hurt."
And despite Crosby being out, Ovechkin knows tonight's game won't be easy.
"They're going to be strong on the puck. They'll play physical and it's going to be an interesting game.