In the middle of the second period of the Rangers’ critical playoff game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday, the Penguins had the game and the series in their command. They led the Rangers by two goals, were dictating play, and the fans inside Madison Square Garden were quiet and edgy.
Their hopeful season seemed desperately close to the end.
But then Jacob Trouba’s left arm, raised high, barreled into the face of Sidney Crosby, the Penguins superstar, who has been playing as well in this series as he ever has in his brilliant career. It was a hit, with dubious intent, according to Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan, that altered the course of the game, and maybe even the series.
Crosby would leave the game for good, and the Rangers scored all of their goals in his absence to win, 5-3, in a wild, comeback victory in Game 5 that drew them to within 3-2 in their now-heated, first-round series.
The Rangers still face elimination in Game 6 on Friday night in Pittsburgh. There was no indication immediately after the game whether Crosby will be available, or what his ailment is, beyond an upper body injury, according to Sullivan.
Sullivan said his star player was still being evaluated after the game and provided no details about his condition. On Thursday morning, the Penguins flew back to Pittsburgh where Crosby would receive further evaluation.
When asked if he thought Trouba had acted with intent to level a sinister blow, Sullivan’s answer was contained more in his stern, clipped tone than his words.
“Did you see the hit?” he asked a reporter, who answered in the affirmative. “You probably have the same opinion I do.”
Crosby went down on the ice from the crunching check, which came immediately after he gathered a loose puck in the Rangers’ defensive end. Crosby quickly regained his feet and tried to play on. But he could not. He went to the bench and sat, lowered his head, and then left for the locker room with roughly seven minutes to play in the period.
Shortly thereafter, the Rangers unleashed a barrage of goals in succession from Adam Fox, Alexis Lafrenière and Trouba, who danced in from the point for a nifty backhand goal that added insult to Crosby’s injury.
One of the most decorated players of the last 20 years, Crosby has won three Stanley Cups with the Penguins, two Hart trophies as the most valuable player in the league and two Conn Smythe trophies for the most valuable player of the playoffs. In the first four games of this series, Crosby had two goals and seven assists.
But he also has a history of head injuries, the most serious of which occurred in 2011. To many skeptical New York fans, he also has a history of flopping in a perceived effort to draw penalties. But in this case, Crosby never even looked to the referees for a call.
There was no penalty issued on the play, and the National Hockey League’s office of player safety will not assess any fine or suspension on Trouba. The play happened quickly, and it could be argued that Trouba’s elbow was high as he tried to gather the loose puck and accidentally crunched into Crosby’s face.
On Thursday, Trouba called the play “fluky.”
“It wasn’t really massively hard contact,” he said. “Unfortunately, you don’t ever want to see somebody get hurt. I don’t know exactly what the injury is, but hopefully he gets better soon.”
And not all the Penguins were convinced the play was dirty. Marcus Pettersson was also asked if he thought Trouba acted with intent to harm.
“Honestly, I didn’t see it,” he said. “But I don’t think so. Both teams are playing hard.”
The violent blow was levied one game after Gerard Gallant, the Rangers coach, had chastised his team for being “soft” in Game 4 in Pittsburgh, a game the Penguins won easily. Gallant was not asking hit players to take cheap shots, rather to compete harder, fight for pucks along the boards, and show more commitment on defense. They did all that.
But it was also clear from the first shift of the game that the Rangers were prepared to be more physical. Chris Kreider and Trouba were called for simultaneous penalties — Kreider for slashing and Trouba for elbowing, just 24 seconds in the game, and they seemed designed to set a tone. The Rangers safely killed off the 5-on-3 power play, and never looked like the soft, aimless group they had been in Game 4 in Pittsburgh.
“They were competitive as hell tonight,” Gallant beamed, “and that’s what we wanted from them.”
He was also pleased that Igor Shesterkin, the Rangers’ starting goalie, played much better in Game 5 than he had in the two previous games in Pittsburgh, when he allowed 10 goals in three periods.
On Thursday, Gallant dismissed the notion that Trouba acted with malice, saying that Crosby’s penchant for darting and spinning on the ice can sometimes lead to accidental impact, and he stressed that Trouba was not trying to hurt him.
But there was no denying the impact of Crosby’s absence on the game.
“Obviously, he’s one of the best players in the world,” Gallant said. “They still had some good chances. They still created a lot. He’s a great player for them, and hopefully he’s OK.”
The quick burst of goals from the Rangers came within two minutes and six seconds of one another. Trouba’s strike, with just over two minutes left in the period, gave the Rangers the lead and caused the fans to roar so loudly, the press box bridge swayed high above the excitement.
“The building was unreal,” Lafrenière said. “Really loud tonight.”
But that lead did not last long as Jake Guentzel scored only 13 seconds later to even the tally, 3-3. It was his seventh goal of the series and his 33rd in 56 career playoff games.
The Rangers took the lead for good on Filip Chytil’s power-play goal three minutes into the third, his first postseason goal, and the team sealed the win on Ryan Lindgren’s empty-net goal, ensuring a Game 6.
The Penguins were loath to blame their late second-period collapse, and the loss, on watching their captain walk down the tunnel to the locker room. But it was hard not to make the connection.
“He’s the best player in the world,” Guentzel said. “That’s a lot of minutes that the guys have to pick up and step up. So, we’ve just got to stick with it.”
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