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Alex Ovechkin should thank Matt Niskanen. If it wasn’t for the Washington Capitals defenseman’s stick to the head of Sidney Crosby – a hideously unfortunate play – then more attention might have been paid to Ovechkin’s role in that sequence, when he viciously slashed Crosby near the Capitals’ net and knocked him off balance.
But according to Pittsburgh columnist Rob Rossi of Upgruv, Ovechkin should thank Niskanen for carrying out the nefarious plot to injure Crosby that was cooked up in their Game 2 players-only meeting and supported by their coach and possibly the NHL.
Let’s take a gander as one of the all-time hottest takes in playoff hockey from Rossi, a longstanding Professional Hockey Writers Association member who covered the Pittsburgh Penguins for years with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
A reading from Rob Rossi’s “NHL should stick it to Alex Ovechkin”, with apologies to Fire Joe Morgan.
Alex Ovechkin shouldn’t play another game in these Stanley Cup playoffs.
ANNNNND we’re off!
He will. And that is why very few people of reason take the NHL seriously.
The “people of reason” would likely note that a playoffs-long ban for players involved in injurious plays is Haley’s Comet rare, the last one being Raffi Torres, who was a repeat-times-10 offender that delivered the kind of open-ice head shot to Marian Hossa he had been warned not to deliver. Hossa was stretchered off the ice. Torres was suspended 25 games.
The “people of reason” would also likely note that suspending to the injury can be a specious and slippery tact, but that’s a debate for another day on which we dare talk about Matt Cooke and Marc Savard again.
The hockey world was damaged Monday night when the only hockey player most Americans know (Sidney Crosby) was driven from hockey’s grandest stage by a crosscheck from Matt Niskanen. That the Capitals wound up winning Game 3 in overtime, snuffing the Penguins’ rally from a 2-0 deficit in the third period, only added insult to Crosby’s injury.
What, not a word about the Redemption of Kevin Shattenkirk, the really big story from Game 3?
With no due respect intended to people who saw it differently,
Niskanen’s action was deserving of its punishment. He received a major penalty and a game misconduct. It was a small price to pay considering Crosby also didn’t finish a fairly significant hockey match.
The penalty itself was, frankly, a gray area. Penguins fans and Capitals fans saw it their respective ways. The majority of the punditry, including “those who played the game,” saw it as a reactionary move form Niskanen that unfortunately leveled Crosby in the head as he was tumbling into a prone position.
That it was a penalty was inarguable. That it was a major penalty was very much arguable, although that argument ended when the officials saw it was Sidney Crosby on the ice. That’s a major and a game. And, given Crosby’s history with this League and its protection of him, it was actually refreshing to see that level of overcompensation.
Niskanen should receive an excused absence (autographed by the league’s Player Safety department) for the remainder of the Capitals’ best-of-seven series against the Penguins.
Even if he didn’t mean it.
I think “people of reason” would agree with most of that.
Though, based only by his previous behavior towards Crosby — in Games 1 and 2 of this series, but also Games 1 through 6 of Round 2 a year ago, and dating to his pre-Penguins tenure with the Dallas Stars — Niskanen cannot be rationally considered to have lacked intent to injure.
Unless you watch the play at any speed and see a player bracing for impact rather than trying to ‘Tonya Harding’ Sidney Crosby out of this series.
While playing with the Penguins, Niskanen was a sneaky, borderline dirty player. These days, he has opted to skate across that border. For Player Safety not to look at Niskanen’s history against Crosby would be the height of credulity.
That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.
Alas, the NHL being the NHL, credulity’s peak is limitless.
An aside: “Credulity’s Peak” would be an amazing gothic horror movie where a town is convinced they’re being attacked by monsters but it’s really just, like, humidity thunder.
Which is exactly why the NHL could — and should — throw the book at Ovechkin, who skated freely despite playing a big role in Crosby’s injury.
Do what now?
Ovechkin was the reason Crosby only lasted three shifts in Game 3. He was the Capital most responsible for Crosby’s injury.
Doesn’t this absolve the player that Rossi just argued should be suspended for intentionally hitting Crosby?
He carelessly lifted his stick into Crosby’s head, forcing the NHL’s sturdiest skater to stagger into Niskanen. If Ovechkin hadn’t gone that route, Crosby wouldn’t have gone headfirst into a check.
Ovechkin, who never met a leap he wouldn’t take, who holds high the stick he often swings at opponents, was the dirty-deed doer at PPG Paints Arena in Game 3.
OK, maybe it’s time to revisit the play:
Change the uniforms and the nameplates, and this is a strong but totally illegal slash up high against a player about to take a high-danger shot against the goalie. Very much in the moment, very much not premeditated.
Ovechkin, who can’t beat Crosby on the ice, decided to remove him from it.
“Decided” is a hell of a term to use on a split-second decision. It’s almost like Rossi is inferring that the Capitals issued a fatwa on Sidney Crosby in a closed-doors players’ only meeting after Game 2’s blowout loss, which would be insane to suggest without any evidence.
Makes you wonder what that closed-door meeting called by Capitals players was really about after their blowout defeat in Game 2, huh? Not really.
If they say it wasn’t about eliminating Crosby, the Capitals are liars. And if that sounds like an unfair accusation to make of the Capitals, then please consider my decade of experience covering a sport I love and a league I really, really, really want to give the benefit of the doubt.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Capitals all stood in that room and listened to mild Swede Nicklas Backstrom deliver a Reg Dunlop “LET’EM KNOW WE’RE THERE!” speech that led to the increase in physical play in Game 3. This is something “people of reason” could see happening.
But claiming the edict was “eliminating Crosby” without any evidence, and then claiming anyone in the room that suggests otherwise is a “liar” because you love hockey and have been blessed with a lengthy career covering it, is the height of irresponsibility.
Here’s Mike Wise, who has decades of experience, too:
Again, this is akin to putting a bounty on Crosby’s head. Ask Todd Bertuzzi how serious that accusation is.
(Or maybe consider their coach publicly saying his players must go places they hadn’t gone before?)
Here’s the full quote from Barry Trotz after Game 2:
“They have a great pedigree. They’ve won a Cup. They’ve gone to places in their room that you go when you win a championship. We’re going to have to go to places that we haven’t gone before to beat this team,”
So, actually, their coach said his players have to go places where the Penguins have gone before. So either the Penguins are injurious thugs bent on taking out other team’s star players, or maybe he’s talking about – and I know this is going to sound crazy – confidence and fortitude.
Sorry, but I cannot give the Capitals, or the NHL, any benefit. And I doubt very much there wasn’t an intent to injure Crosby when this series shifted to Pittsburgh.
Is this an implication that the NHL is part of this conspiracy? Was Gary Bettman standing in the corner like Darth Sideous as the Capitals laid out their plans, muttering “good … good … let the hate flow through you?”
If you need to know why, go ahead and watch what has happened the past couple of postseasons when Crosby played for the Penguins against the Capitals.
The Capitals lost. And Crosby, as he usually has been, was one of the biggest reasons.
More than he is The Face of Hockey, Crosby is the Face of Fear for the Capitals.
Shout out to the Faces of Fear. More wrestling in a moment…
He’s haunted them as if ordered to by the hockey gods.
Sidney Crosby, Dementor for the Hockey Gods.
He was on the haunt again in this series, too.
Taking a moment away from this conspiracy theory, there’s no question that the Capitals played their most complete game and played without their usual cuckolded hesitation without Crosby in the lineup.
There is, without question, a benefit to not having him on the ice or in this series.
But that that isn’t evidentiary with regard to a bang-bang play in front of the Capitals net being part of a massive scheme to injure him. That is an “Evel Knievel jumping a moon crater” level leap.
Had the Capitals lost Game 3, they were going to be swept from a postseason they had ticketed as their ride toward glory. They had ticketed last postseason similarly, and the Capitals arrived in Pittsburgh knowing full well this one was going like that one.
Save for being confident that their starts have been great, Holtby would rebound after being pulled and this Penguins team still doesn’t have Kris Letang.
No Capital gripped that ticket tighter than Ovechkin, with understandable reason. He is arguably the greatest hockey player to never win the Cup.
Somewhere, Marcel Dionne weeps.
He also is indisputably as filthy as his right-handed shot is ferocious.
Kudos to Rossi for not dredging up “Ovechkin intentionally tried to injure Ron Hainsey with his shot,” which was the other grand conspiracy theory of this series. But we imagine that’s because a competitor wrote it.
And in a playoff game his reputation could not stand to lose, the dominant goal scorer of his generation resorted to raising his magic wand wildly in the direction of his historic rival’s famously previously concussed brain.
Shorter: He slashed the crap out of him on a prime scoring chance in a must-win game.
Could describe what Ovechkin did many ways. Would not call it a “hockey play.” Neither would Capitals coach Barry Trotz after Game 3.
Here’s where we get to Rossi’s confrontation with Trotz after Game 3. Jump to the 2:00 mark and watch:
ROSSI: “Barry, is the play by Alex, that led to Sid sort of staggering into Niskanen where he appeared to get the stick up towards the face, is that a hockey play?”
TROTZ: “Was there a penalty? I don’t understand.”
ROSSI: “Does it have to be a penalty to be a hockey play? Is it a hockey play also?”
TROTZ: “No, I’m not going to defend anything. Is Kunitz’s predatory hit on Oshie okay? Or the one on Backstrom, is that okay? I’m not going to debate on all that stuff. So that’s a terrible question.”
ROSSI: “So, no, Barry?”
TROTZ: “Next. You got your answer.”
Well that was tense.
Obviously, after you’ve asked for multiple suspensions, claimed there was a closed-door conspiracy to injure Sidney Crosby and gave the head coach an inquisition about the veracity of penalties, there’s only one place to go:
Like, he literally cut a promo on Barry Trotz’s coaching prowess, lack of postseason success and said basically called him “stupid.”
See it however you want, folks.
Oh, I think we’ve seen plenty now.
From here, the view was obvious. Ovechkin went after Crosby’s head. If the NHL keeps allowing him to play in its hallowed postseason for having done that, it really is the “garage league,” as Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux infamously once deemed.
Oh yes, we simply can’t get through this piece on the Capitals’ thuggery without evoking Saint Mario and his sanctimonious “garage league” rant.
Here’s the thing: Ovechkin, for all his “indisputably filthy” play, isn’t the guy Mario’s talking about when he’s calling the NHL a “garage league.” He was talking about the marginal players taking liberties with star players.
And point of fact: Mario has had no issue with good players that play dirty, whether it was staking with Darius Kasparitus and Ulf Samuelsson and Rick Tocchet or having Brooks Oprik and Matt Cooke on this payroll.
So please, don’t evoke the sacred words of Saint Mario if you can’t recall the context of the scriptures.
So please, good people of the Player Safety department, surprise me, shock mostly everybody else and do something significant in the name of your namesake and safety.
Yes, the Department of Players Safety can certainly be depended upon to do right by Sidney Crosby, as Dave Steckel and Victor Hedman will tell you.
Rise up and stick it to Alex Ovechkin… just as he did to Sidney Crosby.
Because he used his stick, you see.
I’ve known Rossi for years. We’re friends. I’ve seen him level up in anger and ire after games, preparing to write a column like this, and frequently targeting the Penguins’ foibles. There’s a certain amount of conviction here, and a lot of showmanship. It’s just what he does.
But taking out Sidney Crosby in front of Rob Rossi is like arguing the merits of DeflateGate to Gisele Bundchen. They aren’t going to stand for this [expletive] and someone has to pay.
Peel away the layers of vitriolic and hyperbolic nonsense, and there are some salient points here. Ovechkin’s slash wasn’t called, just as countless other infractions weren’t called in a game that got so far out of the referees’ hands that had to send a search party to find it again in overtime.
And Crosby, as we mentioned before, isn’t someone that the League has sought to protect from others, either through Department of Player Safety rulings or in series like the one against the New York Rangers a few years ago when Marc Staal did what Niskanen did on a nightly basis, only with intent.
(The League has protected Crosby from himself on occasion.)
Maybe this crackpot conspiracy theory actually gets proven correct. Maybe someone in the Capitals’ locker room (“ORRRRRRPIK!!!”) turns state’s evidence and reveals that, yes, they planned on injuring Crosby and just needed to wait until the right scoring play to do it for plausibly deniability. Maybe we have our own BountyGate on our hands.
At this point, I’d hope for Rossi that’s the case. Because otherwise, this rambling, aggressive, deluded, conspiratorial, bat-[expletive] multimedia takeout of Niskanen, Ovechkin, Trotz, the NHL and logic only benefits one party:
Upgruv, whatever that is.
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