The scene was repeated on television networks all day long: The NHL’s best player, Sidney Crosby, is mauled by a pair of Washington Capitals players as he attacks the goal. Crosby is slashed by the Russian star Alex Ovechkin, and then cross-checked in the face by defenceman Matt Niskanen before he crashes to the ice and is forced from the game with a concussion.

As word came down Tuesday that the NHL would not issue any additional discipline to Ovechkin or Niskanen beyond the major penalty Niskanen was assessed on the ice, the Penguins announced Crosby would miss Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semi-final. The result hardly seems equitable, but given the haphazard way the NHL enforces its rules around stick infractions, it is not a surprise.

“It’s like a car accident,” said Capitals’ coach Barry Trotz. “You have your side of how it happened – and the other person will have his side. It’s perspective. That’s why we have a player safety department.”

The NHL’s department of player safety walks a thin line when it comes to enforcing stick fouls, which became a hot-button issue this season because so many went unpenalized.

Had Monday’s injury happened to someone other than Crosby, it wouldn’t necessarily attract so much attention.

But Crosby is the NHL’s most recognizable talent, playing at the top of his game, and is the main reason the Penguins have a chance to defend the Stanley Cup they won last year, with Crosby the MVP of that series.

So his absence will be critically felt – by his team and also by the league, where he is one of the most consistently dominant players and now has to watch from the sidelines, for at least one game.

Under current player safety protocols, a player must be in control of his stick at all times and is responsible for any untoward outcomes. Intent doesn’t matter. If you clip a player in the face, it’s a penalty.

However, the league does allow for extenuating circumstances, in situations where a player’s body or head position shifts at the precise split-second of contact. In those cases, if the league determines it would have been impossible for a player to stop his own forward momentum, either with his body or stick, that player is often exonerated for his actions.

For years, the NHL had a problem with predatory head hits, but eventually weaned the majority out of the game by strictly enforcing rules designed to make the game safer. The same strategy now needs to apply to how stick fouls are penalized, even if it will fundamentally force players to change how they defend. Commonly, if a player’s stick gets slashed and it breaks, it’s an automatic penalty. But if a player’s hand gets slashed and it breaks, often there is no penalty. It makes no sense.

Crosby was actually at the centre of a stick-wielding controversy earlier this season when Ottawa Senators’ owner Eugene Melnyk wanted him banned indefinitely for a slash on defenceman Marc Methot that shattered Methot’s finger. Slashes across the hand or sticks across the head have become so commonplace that, logically, the only way to genuinely wean players off that sort of behaviour would be to dramatically increase the consequences of any stick infraction.

Instead of routine two-minute minors, if they were all five-minute majors or double minors, presumably players would adjust and stop using their sticks to check. This, of course, would greatly alter the sport – which in this particular case wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

There is no timetable for Crosby’s return, though Penguins’ coach Mike Sullivan described his mood on Tuesday as “very positive” and said: “We’re optimistic and hopeful that we will get him back in a timely fashion.”

Crosby’s concussion history dates back to a game against Washington in the NHL’s 2011 Winter Classic in which he was hit in the head by forward David Steckel. That injury cost Crosby almost two full seasons. This past September, he was concussed again in an innocent training-camp collision with a teammate and missed the first six games of the season.

But he returned to lead the league in goal scoring (44) and on Monday was named a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. Pittsburgh currently leads the series 2-1, but Crosby’s absence could tip it in Washington’s favour. That’s the short-term issue the Penguins need to deal with. To effect long-term positive change, there generally needs to a turning-point moment; perhaps the Crosby injury Monday night will bring about that change: That stick work needs to be greatly reduced in the same way that hits to the head have been greatly reduced.

It can be done. It just needs a trigger point. Maybe this is it.

The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, May 02, 2017 8:05PM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, May 02, 2017 10:12PM EDT