Midway through the second period of Wednesday’s critical Rangers playoff game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Penguins were in control of the game and series. They led the Rangers by two goals, dictating the game and the fans at Madison Square Garden were calm and nervous.
Their hopeful season seemed hopelessly near the end.
But then Jacob Trouba’s left arm, raised high, slammed into the face of Sidney Crosby, the Penguins superstar who has played the best of the series in his brilliant career. According to Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, it was a hit of dubious intent that changed the course of the game and maybe even the series.
Crosby would leave the game forever, and Rangers scored all the goals in his absence to win 5-3 in a wild comeback win in Game 5 that put them 3-2 in their now-heated first-round series .
The Rangers are still close to the end of Game 6 in Pittsburgh on Friday night. According to Sullivan, immediately after the game there was no indication if Crosby will be available or what his illness is, other than an upper-body injury.
Sullivan said his star player was still being evaluated after the game and didn’t provide details on his condition. On Thursday morning, the Penguins flew back to Pittsburgh, where Crosby would receive further evaluation.
When asked if he thought Trouba acted with intent to deliver a sinister blow, Sullivan’s response was more in his stern, terse tone than in his words.
“Did you see the hit?” he asked a reporter, who affirmed. “You probably agree with me.”
Crosby went on the ice after the crunching check, which came immediately after collecting a loose puck in Rangers’ defensive end. Crosby quickly got to his feet and tried to continue playing. But he couldn’t. He went to the bench and sat down, bowed his head and then went into the dressing room with about seven minutes left.
Shortly after, Rangers unleashed a barrage of back-to-back goals from Adam Fox, Alexis Lafrenière and Trouba, who danced from the point to a nifty backhand goal that further insulted Crosby’s injury.
One of the most accomplished players of the past 20 years, Crosby has won three Stanley Cups, two Hart trophies as the league’s most valuable player, and two Conn Smythe trophies as the playoff’s most valuable player with the Penguins. In the first four games of that 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. For many skeptical New York fans, he also has a history of failing in a perceived attempt to take a penalty. But in this case, Crosby didn’t even ask the referees for a call.
No penalty was imposed for the game and the National Hockey League’s Office of Player Safety will not issue a fine or suspension on Trouba. Play went fast, and it could be argued that Trouba’s elbow was up trying to collect the loose puck and accidentally crunched Crosby’s face.
On Thursday, Trouba called the piece “Fluky.”
“It wasn’t really massive hard contact,” he said. “Unfortunately, you never want to see anyone get hurt. I don’t know exactly what the injury is, but hopefully he’ll get better soon.”
And not all penguins were convinced that the piece 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 do not believe that. Both teams play hard.”
The severe blow was imposed a game after Rangers coach Gerard Gallant punished his team for being “soft” in Game 4 in Pittsburgh, a game the Penguins easily won. Gallant didn’t ask hit players to take cheap shots, but to compete harder, fight for pucks along the boards, and show more dedication on defense. They did all that.
But it was also clear from the first layer of the game that Rangers were ready to show more body. Chris Kreider and Trouba were called up for simultaneous penalties – Kreider for a slash and Trouba for an elbow, just 24 seconds into the game and they seemed poised to set a tone. The Rangers finished safely on 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 Rangers’ starting goalie Igor Shesterkin played much better in Game 5 than in the previous two games in Pittsburgh, as he conceded 10 goals in three thirds.
On Thursday, Gallant dismissed the notion that Trouba acted maliciously, saying Crosby’s penchant for shooting and spinning on the ice could sometimes result in an accidental impact, and stressing that Trouba was not trying to hurt him.
But the impact of Crosby’s absence on the game was undeniable.
“Obviously he’s one of the best players in the world,” Gallant said. “They still had some good chances. You have still accomplished a lot. He’s a great player for them and hopefully he’s doing well.”
Rangers’ quick goals came within two minutes and six seconds. Trouba’s strike put Rangers ahead with just two minutes to go and had the fans roaring so loud that the bridge of the press box shook high above the excitement.
“The building was unreal,” said Lafrenière. “Really noisy tonight.”
But this lead didn’t last long, because Jake Guentzel scored just 13 seconds later to equalize 3:3. It was his seventh straight goal and 33rd in 56 playoff games of his career.
Rangers finally took the lead with Filip Chytil’s third-minute power-play goal, his first goal of the season, and the team sealed the win with Ryan Lindgren’s empty goal to secure a sixth game.
The Penguins were reluctant to blame their late second-period collapse and loss on watching their captain walk down the tunnel to the dressing room. But it was hard not to make the connection.
“He’s the best player in the world,” said Guentzel. “That’s a lot of minutes that the boys have to collect and increase. So we just have to keep at it.”