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Out of desperation, the Washington Capitals could have dug deep and turned to their star winger to score a goal or a defenseman to prevent one.

Instead, they resorted to one of hockey's cheapest tricks: take out the opponent's best player.

There is no sorrier sight in the Stanley Cup playoffs than to watch the world's best player struggle to skate off the ice, not knowing the severity of his injury but certain that he won't return.

What is now certain is Crosby has a concussion and will miss Game 4 of the playoff series.

A play that could have been the go-ahead goal for the Penguins instead delivered their worst nightmare.

Sidney Crosby was crushed by a cross-check that left him sprawled on the ice at 5 minutes, 24 seconds of the first period of their 3-2 overtime loss in Game 3 Monday night at PPG Paints Arena.

After Crosby took a pass from Jake Guentzel left of the goal, Capitals star Alex Ovechkin slashed Crosby then clipped his helmet on the backswing. The hit caused Crosby to lose balance and his left knee to buckle as he crossed the crease. A waiting Matt Niskanen caught Crosby on the chin with the butt-end of his stick on the way down.

Niskanen crouched over Crosby, who rolled over and used his left glove to adjust his helmet. After lying on his side for a moment, Crosby was helped to his skates by teammates Ron Hainsey and Patric Hornqvist and escorted off the ice by head athletic trainer Chris Stewart.

Was it premeditated?

Only the Capitals can answer that.

“Absolutely not. It wasn't intentional,” said Niskanen, a former Penguins defenseman who once fought Crosby while playing for the Dallas Stars.

“I've seen the replay. In super slow-mo, it looks really bad. He's coming across trying to score. As he's doing that, he's getting lower and lower. When it's happening that fast ... my stick and his head collided. I wasn't extending, trying to hit him in the head. It happened quickly.

“I wasn't even trying to cross-check him with a serious amount of force. A collision was going to happen there in the crease. When the play first starts, I think my stick had about his arm level probably right about where the numbers are on the side of his jersey. Because he's trying to make a play, he's getting lower and lower. He's getting pressured.”

Maybe you'd be more willing to buy that explanation if it wasn't from the Capitals, the same organization against which Crosby suffered a concussion on a blindside hit by David Steckel in the 2011 Winter Classic, an injury that caused him to miss 63 games over two seasons.

Penguins winger Chris Kunitz disagreed with Niskanen's assessment.

“I like Nisky as a person. I don't think it's a very nice hit,” Kunitz said. “I don't think it's something this game is looking for, especially someone who means so much to our team.”

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan refused to share his opinion on the play, nor would he react to Capitals coach Barry Trotz's characterization of the hit as a “hockey play.” Sullivan also declined to reveal Crosby's status or the nature of his injury, whether it was to the head or lower body.

“At the end of the day, it really doesn't matter what either coach's opinion is on it,” Sullivan said, “... or anyone else's, for that matter, except for the authorities.”

Niskanen drew a five-minute major for cross-checking and was ejected with a game misconduct.

Regardless, the league needs to stop this nonsense. It has gone to great lengths to protect its star players since Crosby's concussion. Even if neither Ovechkin nor Niskanen's hits were premeditated, they were most certainly opportunistic.

Worse yet, they were dangerous.

There was no need for Niskanen to cross-check Crosby, especially as he was falling down.

Instead of the infamy of Islanders playoff heroes John Tonelli and David Volek and Florida's Tom Fitzgerald, Niskanen will go down with Steckel and N.Y. Rangers forward Adam Graves as opponents notorious for taking out a Penguins superstar.

Before Niskanen's hit on Crosby, Graves delivered the most menacing blow when he slashed Mario Lemieux in the 1992 Stanley Cup playoffs. It fractured a bone in Lemieux's left hand at 5:05 of the first period of Game 2 of their Patrick Division final. Graves drew only a two-minute slashing penalty, and the Rangers won 4-2.

Those aren't the only similarities. That '92 Penguins team, like this one, was the reigning Stanley Cup champions and Lemieux, like Crosby, was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoffs MVP.

What's worth noting is that while Lemieux missed the rest of that series, which the Penguins won in six games, he returned to lead them to a sweep of the Boston Bruins and a second straight Cup championship.

Trotz acknowledged that Crosby's absence will hurt the Penguins.

“Obviously, he's one of the best players in the world,” Trotz said. “He's a fantastic player. That's a big hole.”

The Penguins have to prove that it's not a black hole. They have shown character in overcoming injuries to starting goaltender Matt Murray and to top defenseman Kris Letang, but losing Crosby would be their biggest challenge yet.

Not only is Crosby their superstar but one who scored two goals in Game 1 and had two assists in Game 2. He'd been the best player on the ice this series, no apologies to Ovechkin, and had 11 points in the playoffs.

The reaction in the Penguins dressing room was ominous as the players said they hadn't seen their captain since he left the ice.

That has cast a dark cloud over this series, one in which the only time the Capitals have shown they can capitalize is when the opportunity to cheap shot Crosby presented itself.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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