Injury to Sidney Crosby the Penguins' biggest challenge yet

Niskanen says hit wasn't intentional (0:45)

Matt Niskanen provides his point of view on the hit that knocked Sidney Crosby out of Game 3 while Chris Kunitz says the game isn't looking for things like that. (0:45)

PITTSBURGH -- One of the biggest mandates from Mike Sullivan when he took over as coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins last season was to dial down the emotional swings that often distracted the team. Opponents could get in their head. The opponents knew it and, probably, deep down the Penguins knew it too.

Sullivan's message was simple: Just play. Don't worry about the rest.

The Penguins, in his mind, were more talented than any team around. If they removed all the distractions, if they just unshackled themselves from the baggage that came with being the star-studded Penguins, they might have a chance to be special.

Along the way, they became more clinical, certainly more workmanlike. Nowhere do you see that more than in their response to injuries.

Star defenseman Kris Letang goes down? No problem -- they'll just spread out the minutes evenly among the rest of the defensemen. No matter that Letang was the heart and soul of the Stanley Cup run last spring, or that Sullivan relied on him for half an hour each game in a way that made him seem irreplaceable. Is it harder without him? Absolutely. Irreplaceable? Not so far.

Then came Matt Murray's lower-body injury, aggravated during warmups before the first game of the playoffs. They don't win a Stanley Cup without him in goal last year. Marc-Andre Fleury's outstanding play has made him almost an afterthought.

But the biggest test of them all comes next.

Clipped by Alex Ovechkin's stick, then leveled by Matt Niskanen, captain Sidney Crosby went down in the first period of Game 3 against the Washington Capitals here Monday and never returned. Sullivan offered no update after the game, a 3-2 overtime win by the Capitals that trimmed Pittsburgh's lead in this Eastern Conference semifinal series to 2-1, only to say he would be evaluated overnight and they'll go from there.

Sullivan wouldn't even offer a lower-body or upper-body diagnosis, which would narrow down the injury options considerably, and even possibly rule out another concussion.

He'd only say that he expects the Penguins to survive it. Even this, the injury to their best player and captain. If they do, if they get by the Capitals without Crosby, there might be nothing that stops Pittsburgh.

"This group has so much character and talent that we're able to endure the injuries," Sullivan said. "We did it again tonight. We'll continue to do it. I think these guys are just great character guys. They never look for an excuse."

The answer was level-headed. Even if you could detect a bit of anger buried just below the surface, it was all controlled.

Watching Crosby lying facedown on the ice, in clear pain following the hit, brought a mix of stunned silence and boos from the Penguins crowd. It's a scene the hockey world doesn't want to see again from the future Hall of Famer, who has raised the NHL to new heights since entering the league while battling through concussions.

The Penguins' emotions manifested themselves in their physical play, sometimes after the whistle -- moments that they've mostly removed from their game under Sullivan.

But following it, those emotions were gone. To a player, the Penguins said it was hard to see their captain go down, they hope it's not too serious, but they have to move forward if it is. Anyone looking for a postgame cloud weighing down the Penguins dressing room didn't get it.

This team has fully embraced the notion that you control what you control and shove aside the rest. Even if the rest might be concerns over the captain.

"We're fortunate. We have guys down the middle who can play," Penguins winger Chris Kunitz said. "We have guys out of the lineup that want to be in. It's just one of those things. Next guy up."

Next guy up. Even if he's nowhere close to Crosby.

The end of regulation in Game 3 provided a glimpse of what life without Crosby has to look like if the Penguins are going to have any success moving forward. Evgeni Malkin scored a goal, assisted on another and was engaged in a way that suggested he's ready to carry this team if need be. We've seen him do it so often in Crosby's absence.

This might be his shot to carry the baton. It was a luxury to have Fleury waiting when Murray went down. It might be an even bigger luxury to have another future Hall of Fame center in Malkin ready to raise his game without Crosby.

That depth of stars is what has made the Penguins so hard to beat. It's also why they think they can survive without all of them.

"It's never easy to see a teammate go down, definitely Sid. He's a leader in this group," said defenseman Olli Maatta. "We've been dealing with these all season, last season. Guys going down. We always have guys who step up."