PITTSBURGH – Sidney Crosby made his way down the tunnel and out of sight. Any sense of security the Pittsburgh Penguins had in their first-round playoff series against the New York Rangers disappeared right along with their captain.
The superstar’s status for Friday night’s Game 6 is uncertain after Crosby absorbed a high but — in the eyes of the officials — legal hit from Jacob Trouba late in the second period of Game 5 on Wednesday night. He didn’t play the final 26 minutes and was nowhere near the bench as a two-goal lead turned into a 5-3 loss that sent the series back to Pittsburgh.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan offered scant details on Thursday other than to say Crosby would continue to be evaluated. Sullivan declined to get into specifics about whether the three-time Stanley Cup champion was dealing with another concussion, saying only Crosby has an upper-body injury.
While Sullivan stressed his group has what it takes to win regardless of who is in the lineup, the reality is the Penguins are not the same when Crosby’s familiar No. 87 isn’t doing the little things — and the big ones too — that have made him a singular force for the better part of two decades.
It was evident in the immediate scramble after Crosby’s departure. Pittsburgh allowed three goals in less than three minutes and struggled to generate any consistent pressure on New York goaltender Igor Shesterkin after the Rangers took the lead for good in the third period.
Crosby spent two years grappling with post-concussion issues a decade ago, cutting right into the middle of his prime. He’s been largely healthy since 2013, though he did miss a second-round game against Washington in 2017 after taking a cross-check to the head from Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen.
Pittsburgh pulled out a 3-2 victory with Crosby in street clothes before going on to win the series in seven games and a second straight Stanley Cup a month later. The Penguins also held their own early this season while Crosby recovered from wrist surgery.
“We’ve always had a mindset here that there’s a next-man-up approach,” Sullivan said.
There will be a first-line center for Pittsburgh on Friday night, likely Evgeni Malkin if Crosby is unavailable. Malkin, like Crosby, is one of the pillars the franchise is built around. Yet Crosby’s play during the first four-plus games of the series showcased that even during the back half of his Hall of Fame career, he is a commanding presence in his 15th postseason.
Crosby had two goals and seven assists before getting injured. Earlier this week he became the sixth player in NHL history to reach 200 career points in the postseason. The scoresheet, however, doesn’t provide a full picture of what Crosby brings.
“It’s the little things that you have to watch, and that’s what you appreciate,” said former NHL forward Anson Carter, now an analyst for Turner Sports. “He’s not going to bring you out of your seat like Connor McDavid with his speed or Nathan MacKinnon. He’s not going to wow you with his slap shot like the cannon of a shot like (Alex Ovechkin) has. But the nuances of his game are exceptional. And when you watch him enough and you see the little things that he does, you’re like, ‘Wow that was a great play.’”
Crosby remains just as vital to Pittsburgh’s success for things that have nothing to do with his on-ice presence.
“He’s not only a leader through his actions, but he’s a leader through his demeanor and how he carries himself,” Sullivan said. “And he’s a voice of reason, you know, through an emotional, turbulent game.”
The Penguins now face the prospect of potentially navigating those choppy waters without him. Then again, they’re also playing at home, a place that has reveled in Shesterkin’s shaky play. The Vezina and Hart Trophy finalist was pulled from both Games 3 and 4 earlier in the series.
PANTHERS at CAPITALS, Florida leads 3-2 (7:30 p.m. EDT, TBS)
Carter Verhaeghe has the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers on the verge of knocking out the Capitals. Verhaeghe scored twice, including the overtime winner, in Game 4 at Washington and set a franchise record with five points in Florida’s Game 5 comeback victory at home.
“Certainly he’s doing damage in this series,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said Thursday. “For me, he’s got a good release, he’s got good offensive instincts, he’s blending in with a team that has a lot of high power.”
The Capitals have less firepower this series without right winger Tom Wilson, who was injured in Game 1 and has not played since.
FLAMES at STARS, Calgary leads 3-2 (9:30 p.m. EDT, TNT)
A third-period rally at home in Game 5 moved the Flames to within one game from advancing to the Western Conference semifinals for just the second time since 2004.
“The bottom line is, we have a lot of guys that haven’t won a fourth game (of a series),” Calgary coach Darryl Sutter said. “That’s the next step in the process, (to) see if we are capable of doing that.”
Flames forward Blake Coleman is wary. The Stars are just two years removed from a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, a run that started with a first-round victory over Calgary.
“If there’s something I’ve learned over the last few years, it’s that closing a team out is the hardest part of the series and winning that fourth game is the hardest game you’ve got to win,” Coleman said. “The job is certainly not done. They’re a proud group and you’ve got to put them in a position where they don’t want it anymore.”
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno and AP Sports Writers Stephen Hawkins and Tim Reynolds contributed to this report.
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