Sidney Crosby walked around the Pittsburgh Penguins practice facility on Wednesday, trying to encourage his teammates as they prepared to go forward in their increasingly caustic playoff series against Washington without their captain and the game's most indispensable player.
The Pittsburgh star is out for Thursday's Game 4 while recovering from yet another concussion, this one coming from being cross-checked in the head by Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen in the first period of Washington's 3-2 overtime victory on Tuesday.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said Crosby will be evaluated on a daily basis going forward. There is no timetable for the two-time MVP's return.
"He's very positive and we're very optimistic and we're hopeful that we'll get him back in a timely fashion," Sullivan said.
The defending Stanley Cup champions lead the series 2-1, an advantage they built thanks in large part to Crosby. He scored twice in Game 1 and dished out a pair of assists in a blowout victory in Game 2 to give Pittsburgh control in a meeting of the longtime rivals who finished the regular season with the two best records in the NHL.
All that momentum vanished 5:24 into the first period Tuesday when Crosby was knocked off balance by Washington's Alex Ovechkin as Crosby skated in front of the Capitals' crease.
Niskanen, who played with Crosby for four years in Pittsburgh before signing with Washington in 2014, turned toward Crosby. Niskanen's stick caught Crosby flush across the right side of the head and the defenseman kept his hands on Crosby as the star fell to the ice before skating away. Crosby was on the ice for several minutes before slowly making his way to the dressing room under his own power. Niskanen received a five-minute major and a game misconduct.
The league decided against holding a hearing to determine whether the hit should be subject to review from the NHL's Department of Player Safety. Niskanen said following the game the hit was not intentional, with coach Barry Trotz calling it "a hockey play."
The Penguins opted against trying to litigate the fallout, focusing instead on Crosby's well-being.
"My thoughts don't really matter," said Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury , teammates with Crosby for over a decade. "It doesn't change anything. Doesn't matter what I say. I really hope that Sid feels good."
Crosby has dealt with multiple concussions during his career, including one against Washington in the 2011 Winter Classic that he needed nearly two years to fully recover from. He missed the first couple weeks of this season with a concussion but returned to lead the NHL in goals, part of a remarkable run that saw him lead the Penguins to the franchise's fourth Stanley Cup last summer while earning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
The Penguins have become adept at surviving the loss of bold-faced names this season. Pittsburgh posted the second-best record in franchise history with defenseman Kris Letang missing half the season various injuries, center Evgeni Malkin sitting 20 games with various issues and goaltender Matt Murray going out before Game 1 of Pittsburgh's first-round series against Columbus after tweaking a lower-body injury.
"If Sid is not playing ... it's a loss for us," Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist said. "We need other guys to step up and we've been doing that all year."
The stakes, however, are high. Washington controlled Game 3 before the Penguins scored twice in the final 2 minutes to force overtime. The Capitals survived when Kevin Shattenkirk flipped a shot from the point by Fleury 3:13 into overtime.
Washington expects Pittsburgh to ramp up the physical play in Game 4 even as Fleury warned about the dangers of trying to retaliate. The Capitals insist they'll be ready.
"It should be nasty," Washington forward Jay Beagle said. "It's the playoffs. That's the way we like to play. That's the way they like to play. Hard hits. Going after each other."
Pittsburgh forward Conor Sheary is also dealing with a concussion after colliding with teammate Patric Hornqvist in the second period Tuesday. Sheary's status for Game 4 was uncertain.