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Uncanny how Penguins see history repeat itself in Niskanen’s ‘hockey play’

Uncanny how Penguins see history repeat itself in Niskanen’s ‘hockey play’


1:53 update — Sidney Crosby has been diagnosed with a concussion and will miss at least one game.

Mike Sullivan — “He will go through the protocols that we always put our guys through when they’ve been diagnosed with a concussion. The nature of these things is that they’re all very different. Sometimes they come around quickly. Other times they don’t. My experience of dealing with these in the past with players is that they’re day-to-day things. We rely on our medical staff to advise us the right way.”

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History has a way of repeating itself. It’s just a little freaky when it happens essentially 25-years to the day.

Picture it, New York City, 1992, the Penguins had taken a 1-0 series lead against the New York Rangers after winning Game 1 of their second round series on May 3. The win had them feeling pretty good about their chances of continuing their quest for back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships during their 25th season in the league.

Game 2 took place on May 5 and the Penguins took a 1-0 lead on a goal by Kevin Stevens, but in the blink of an eye, Penguins’ captain Mario Lemieux was lost following what was deemed a “hockey play” by the Rangers.

Adam Graves took a solid chop across the hands of Lemieux, which left him in a heap on the ice. His wrist has been fractured on the play and he would miss the remainder of the series. Graves was suspended for four games, but the damage had been done.

“The frustrating thing is there’s nothing we can do to even it out,” Phil Bourque said at the time. “You want revenge. You want an eye for an eye, as the old saying goes. And you want the league to do something about it. Our best revenge is to beat them in the series.

“No doubt, though, we’re the ones who got punished. We lost a player who can’t be replaced for something that was very illegal. So you can throw fairness out the window in this case. A tainted series? That’s a good way of putting it.”

The Penguins fell into a 2-1 hole before Ron Francis made himself a legend in Game 4. He got some help from Troy Loney, the Muskegon Line and others and they didn’t lose another game en route to winning that second Cup.

Flash forward to May 1, 2017, where the Penguins are competing in the Stanley Cup playoffs and hoping to win back-to-back Stanley Cup Championships in their 50th season. They proved many doubters wrong in roaring out to a 2-0 series lead over the Washington Capitals, but that feel-good vibe was lost at 5:24 of the first period during Game 3, when Alex Ovechkin and Matt Niskanen erased Penguins’ captain Sidney Crosby on what the Capitals’ coach Barry Trotz called a “hockey play.”

The Capitals, buoyed by playing a version of the Penguins minus Crosby, were able to eke out a 3-2 overtime victory to pull the series to 2-1. It’s hard to see how much momentum they can or will muster from the victory, considering that they blew a 2-goal lead over the final two minutes of regulation, but win they did.

I had the benefit of getting Bourque’s take on this situation as well, as we worked together during the Penguins second intermission report on Monday.

“Sick to my stomach,” Bourque said when asked to describe the situation that left Crosby prone on the ice. “It doesn’t matter who you’re rooting for. If you’re a part of the Caps organization, you have to be sick to your stomach too, that this has happened.

“I love playoff hockey. Why I love playoff hockey is I love the nastiness. I love the intimidation. I love the physical part of it. I love all of that. Every play means so much but when you crosscheck a guy in the head when he’s looking the other way. I don’t know. I just don’t get it. I’m kind of at a loss for words, but the only way I can describe it is sick to my stomach.”

Phil wasn’t the only one who was sick to his stomach. That same can be said for the 18,000-plus who were taking in the game at PPG Paints Arena and scores of others watching around the league.

The Penguins will not have the benefit of supplemental discipline this time around. The league announced that Niskanen, who received 15 minutes of penalty time for his efforts, will play on. Ovechkin was never under investigation for his stick work that initially caused the Penguins’ superstar to stumble and Trotz was crowing about predator Chris Kunitz.

“I don’t know why he’s crosschecking Sid in the first place,” Bourque said. “I guess that’s his mentality to play hard against Sid. Some guys don’t know when hard becomes dirty. There’s that line there. It’s a shame that some guys, a lot of guys, they cross that line and they end up hurting their hockey club.”

This play didn’t do much to hurt the Capitals in the moment, since they went on to win the game. Then again, the Rangers also won the game in which they knocked Lemieux out of action all those years ago.

Moments like these can galvanize a team. They can make heroes out of unlikely individuals. Here’s hoping that Crosby is able to play again during this series, but if he is out for any period of time, the Penguins will need someone to step up.

There are plenty of individuals who are capable of being that guy. The special thing about this club is that they don’t necessarily need it to be a role player. They have the benefit of having Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, who are among the most pedigreed players in the league. They’ll have to carry the Francis load this time, while everyone else takes their shot at filling in for the Loneys and Muskegon Lines.

Bourque has seen this fish before. He lived it 25 years ago and he saw this group overcome long odds all season in terms of mangames lost and losing marquee players.

“To be blunt with you, it’s never too much,” Bourque said when asked how much more strain the depth of this team can take. “I mean this team just has a way, a resilience to it, a Teflon coating to it, where they can persevere through anything. That’s just the way they’re talking in the locker room right now. Come on boys, somebody step up. Hey, if we’re not getting Sid back, let’s go, you pick each other up. It doesn’t matter how many guys are out of the lineup or who’s in the lineup. You find ways to win hockey games like this.”

History, like I said earlier, has a knack of repeating itself and based on what we’ve all seen this season, I’m not willing to bet against this group making year 50 just as special as number 25 was back in 1992.

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