The rage Penguins fans are feeling in the wake of the Alex Ovechkin/Matt Niskanen assault on Sidney Crosby in Game 3 is understandable.
It’s also irrelevant; Mike Sullivan hit that nail on the head.
What mattered, and what ultimately might help decide this fascinatingly combative series with Washington, is how the Penguins played after they’d lost Crosby.
“We played a good hockey game,” Sullivan maintained after the Caps had breathed new life and new fire into the series by outlasting the Pens, 3-2, in overtime, on Monday night at PPG Paints Arena. “That game could have gone either way.
“It was unfortunate how we lost but I loved our compete level. I think our guys are playing hard.”
More Sullivan on that subject, one he’s addressed often this season and one that’s critical to the Penguins’ identity:
“I think this group has so much character and talent that we’re able to endure the injuries that we have. We’ve done it all year long and we continue, we did it again (Monday night), we’ll continue to do it. I think these guys, they’re just great character guys. They never look for an excuse. They always have a high expectation of themselves. And fortunately, we have some good hockey players.”
Once again, Sullivan hammered the head of the nail dead center.
The Pens didn’t have Kris Letang or Crosby when it came time to pull Marc-Andre Fleury in a desperate attempt to force overtime from two goals down late in Game 3. But they still had Justin Schultz, Chris Kunitz, Jake Guentzel, Evgeni Malkin, Patric Hornqvist and Phil Kessel.
Good hockey players and then some.
And there are more where they came from.
From the goal out.
Whatever Crosby’s fate winds up being in terms of availability, the Penguins will be capable of winning this series.
The compelling complication at present _ in addition to the uncertainty involving Crosby _ is the Capitals are beginning to resemble a team with some of the same admirable intangibles that have been fueling the Penguins.
Two extra-attacker goals against might otherwise have been enough to bury a team, particularly your standard, run-of-the-mill, accident-waiting-to-happen Capitals team in the postseason, particularly the way Games 1 and 2 had played out at the Verizon Center.
But these Caps either kept it together or got it back together between the third period and OT and won the game, anyway.
And that wasn’t an insignificant development.
“I just said, ‘It’s another test for us,’” Caps head coach Barry Trotz revealed of his post-regulation, pre-overtime message to his team. “You gotta sort of park it and I think we’ve been really good at parking stuff. I think that’s the growth on us.
“And I thought in overtime we went for it. We’ve been in a few overtime games already and our overtime record has been pretty good. Regroup and do it in overtime and we did, good response by our group and the leadership. The growth of our group had a lot of resolve to it, and that’s what I’ve been preaching all year.”
If that stuff is actually starting to sink in, it’s a potential game-changer.
And the task of finishing the Capitals off will become a little more daunting.
With or without Crosby.