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The Penguins May Have Lost Who They Could Least Afford To Lose

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 11: Jacob Trouba #8 of the New York Rangers checks Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Five of the First Round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 11, 2022 in New York City. Crosby left the game shortly after the hit. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Injury reporting in the NHL is, at the best of times, an exercise in obfuscation. A guy with a "lower-body injury" could have an ingrown toenail or he could be missing a leg. In the playoffs, though, things get somehow even murkier. You will never know if an injured player is healthy until he's back in the lineup, and you will never know he's fully crabbed until they announce his surgery the day after he's eliminated. Teams do this out of some combination of inertia and imagined strategic advantage, and one side effect of the tradition is inspiring all sorts of anxiety in fans who simply want to know how intensely they should panic.

Sidney Crosby is out for tonight's Game 6 against the Rangers, in a series in which the Penguins are up 3-2. He's reportedly got a concussion; we must say "reportedly" because, officially and of course, it's merely an "upper-body injury." But it's a concussion, suffered roughly midway through Game 5 in an awkward collision with Jacob Trouba. Pens coach Mike Sullivan implied there was intent to injure, but no penalty was called and no supplemental discipline was handed down.

Obviously the first concern is for Crosby's health, after he lost entire seasons of his prime to concussions. But he had been having a vintage year at age 34, and was entirely dominant in this first-round series. The numbers were absurd: two goals and nine points for Crosby in four-plus games, and his line had been driving play to the tune of 81.6 percent of expected goals share. The Rangers had zero answers for the Crosby line, and paired with Igor Shesterkin's slippage, the series looked over. Right up until, almost literally, the moment Crosby left the game on Wednesday. One minute of game time elapsed before the Rangers, down two and facing elimination, scored their first of what would be three goals in 2:42. It felt like something of a shift in the series, the Rangers breaking through just as their all-powerful nemesis had gone to the dressing room. Will it carry over?

The Penguins are not just Sidney Crosby, but they are a whole lot shallower and less scary without him. Evgeni Malkin will slide up to center Rust and Guentzel, so that top line still looks pretty good. But now Evan Rodrigues will quarterback the second line, and while he's played better at center than on the wing, every line suffers some significant (on-paper) downgrade here, at both ends of the ice. While Pittsburgh was a heavy underdog coming into this series, Crosby nearly singlehandedly tilted the ice in the Penguins' favor. Now they don't have him, and while they're still up a game, it sure as hell doesn't feel like it.

The last thing the Penguins want is to lose tonight and have to go back to New York for a Game 7. But should that happen, is there any chance Crosby could play? This is not a silly question, given the uncertain nature of head injuries. But Penguins fans must suffer the frustrations of uncertainty, as, per tradition, there will be zero useful updates on Crosby until he either returns or Pittsburgh's season ends. He reportedly skated but did not practice this morning, which is either promising or unpromising. Mike Sullivan is absolutely not helping either:

Great. So he's being taken to a nice farm upstate, where he can run around with other hockey players. Just have to figure out whether that farm is the euphemistic one.

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