- - Tuesday, May 2, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

We are going to find out some things about the Washington Capitals now.

We’re going to find out exactly how tough these Capitals are — whether they will fight or flee under the attack that is surely coming from the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 4 Wednesday night at PPG Paints Arena.

We’re going to find out exactly how much the culture of winning has indeed changed in the Capitals‘ locker room, as their coach, Barry Trotz, says it has.

The test of those questions facing the Capitals was raised to a whole new level after the game’s best player, Sidney Crosby, went down and out from a blow to the head from Matt Niskanen in Washington’s Game 3 overtime 3-2 win Monday night. The win leaves Pittsburgh with a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.

This has moved beyond whether or not the Capitals are the choking dogs that has become their identity, with early exits and playoff disappointments, year after year.

Those exits were at least done quietly, with only the shame of losing to live with.

Now, though, as the great Doc Walker would say, “It’s a manhood issue.”

The blow to Crosby, which resulted in a five minute major penalty and Niskanen’s ejection from the game, raises the stakes and the tension of this series.

You can believe that in that Penguins locker room, whether they all believe it or not, the story is about how the Capitals targeted Crosby, who had been embarrassing Washington with his dominant play in the series so far, with a shot to the head when they got a chance.

Unlike the cryptic lower body and upper body injury reports that is the typical hidden medical information in the NHL, everyone knows about Crosby’s history of concussions – a history that includes a blow from the Capitals before, in 2011 in the Winter Classic, a blow to the head from David Steckel.

It doesn’t appear that Niskanen was intentionally trying to target Crosby. It would take remarkable execution in the series of action that preceded for such a blow to be planned.

“Absolutely not. It wasn’t intentional,” Niskanen told reporters after the game. “I’ve seen the replay. In super slow-mo, it looks really bad. I caught him high. He’s coming across trying to score. As he’s doing that, he’s getting lower and lower, and when it’s happening that fast, you know, my stick and his head collided. I wasn’t extending trying to hit him in the head. It happened quickly.”

Still, it didn’t look good. It has riled the Penguins fan base, and likely the locker room as well. We know athletes don’t need much to convince themselves of a motivational narrative. The Penguins will come out of that locker room with a few “hockey moves” of their own in mind.

“I hear the noise,” Trotz told reporters Tuesday. “I think it’s ridiculous.”

Don’t be surprised if their target is No. 8, Alex Ovechkin — who played a small, or large role in how Crosby wound up vulnerable to the Niskanen hit, depending on whether you are a Penguins fan or Capitals fan.

In the post-game press conference, a Pittsburgh reporter asked Trotz about the stick shot by Ovechkin on Crosby before the Niskanen blow to his head.

Barry is the play by Alex that led to Sid sort of staggering into Niskanen where he appeared to get the stick up toward his face — is that a hockey play?” the reporter asked.

“Was there a penalty?” Trotz responded.

“Does there have to be a penalty for it to be a hockey play?,” the reporter responded. “I’m just asking, is it a hockey play also?”

That prompted Trotz to perform a couple of verbal “hockey moves” of his own.

“I’m not going to defend anything,” Trotz said. “The sticks are … You want me to defend Alex? Then is (Chris) Kunitz’ predatory hit on (T.J.) Oshie OK? Or the one on (Nicklas) Backstrom? Is that OK? I’m not going to debate about all that stuff.”

Oh, yes, this series just got dialed up.

“It should be nasty, it’s the playoffs,” Jay Beagle said. “It’s the way we like to play. It’s the way they like to play.”

I’m not really sure that this is the way the Capitals like to play.

We’ll find out Wednesday night. Questions will be answered, questions that might have been best never asked.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes and Google Play.

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