Ask former Washington Capitals forward David Steckel or Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, who have been dealing with the stigma for 11 months. No one wants to be the player responsible for knocking Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby out of action.
Just five games ago, Crosby returned from a lengthy absence because of post-concussion symptoms, and the face of the NHL is tearing up the league again. But the question becomes, for the Washington Capitals and every other team, how to defend him amid the sensitive status of his injury and more.
Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner, who Thursday night will look to slow Crosby's torrid pace, joked that all of Canada would hate him if he injured the Pittsburgh center. Still, there can't be any worry about that.
"You want him to play - he's great for the game," Alzner said. "[But] you can't [be worried]. If you think that way it's going to wreck at least my game - it's going to wreck a lot of guys' games, if you're too worried about his health and not winning the game for your team."
That was the consensus around the Capitals' room, from players who work with the existence of being rivals with Crosby and the Penguins. It's almost essential for opponents to bully Crosby because of what he can do when given time and space with or without the puck.
"You can't hesitate to hit someone, or they're going to make you look bad," defenseman Dennis Wideman said. "When it comes to hitting someone, you're hitting someone — you're not trying to hit him in the head. ... You're trying to hit him shoulder to shoulder. I think you have to play him the same way."
Crosby has two goals and nine assists in five games this season since his triumphant return to the Penguins' lineup Nov. 21. It was his first game action since Jan. 5.
Players — even on the Caps — are happy to see Crosby playing again, with Alzner noting that probably 90 percent of the league is glad to see someone of his caliber back on the ice. But with Crosby's return comes the inevitable risk that he could be injured again.
Caps defenseman Roman Hamrlik said he's keenly aware of his opponents, adding that he won't try to run Crosby over if given the opportunity and would think twice before drilling him.
"Yeah, absolutely I would think twice. You don't want to be the guy. You want to play tough against everybody, but I would think twice if I had to hit him or not," he said. "You don't want to see the best player get hurt again. But we know this is a tough sport, and it can happen to anybody."
It's a tough sport that Crosby has shown the ability to dominate. The Caps are no stranger to that, either, as the 24-year-old has 13 goals and 22 assists in 21 career games against Washington.
Alzner said the right idea has to be unafraid to hit Crosby, as long as there's no intent to injure.
"Just play within the rules," forward Matt Hendricks said. "We've established rules this last year and a half about head shots and things like that. A lot of those injuries should be taken away from the game."
But the hits that Steckel and Hedman made on Crosby weren't outlandish, either, and any innocent hit could be the one to injure any player, but especially one with his notable absence with the concussion.
Crosby is under a microscope, with opponents, referees and everyone else around hockey following his progress and how teams handle him.
"I think right now the league looks at him the whole time, if somebody gets a hit against him it's probably going to be two minutes right away," Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin joked.
Coach Dale Hunter said the Capitals need to be smart as well as tough when defending Crosby, and Wideman echoed the sentiment.
"He's a guy that, yeah, you want to be physical with, but it's not that easy," Wideman said. "He's extremely solid and he's really tough on his skates and he's tough to move. If you try to take a run at him, he's probably going to go around you and it'll be a goal."
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