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TRAIKOS

Because it's the Cup? Crosby incident reminds us the NHL has two rulebooks

By Michael Traikos, Postmedia Network

Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins lies on the ice after taking a hit in the first period while playing the Washington Capitals in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinal during the NHL playoffs at PPG Paints Arena on May 1, 2017. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins lies on the ice after taking a hit in the first period while playing the Washington Capitals in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinal during the NHL playoffs at PPG Paints Arena on May 1, 2017. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Because it's the Cup.

That old NHL marketing campaign, which featured players battling through adversity, injuries and insurmountable obstacles on their way to winning a championship, is one way of explaining what happened to Sidney Crosby in Monday night's game against the Washington Capitals.

Playoff hockey is high-stakes hockey. It's violent, aggressive, and sometimes dirty. It's both ugly and beautiful. It's putting away the whistles and letting them play.

It's Scott Stevens literally knocking Paul Kariya out cold with an open-ice hit, only to have Kariya come back and score the game-winning goal. It's Claude Lemieux ramming Kris Draper's face into the dasher boards, or Nathan Horton being stretchered off the ice in the Stanley Cup final. It's everything you love and everything you hate about the sport rolled into one.

So when Alex Ovechkin swung his stick at Crosby's head as if it were a baseball in the opening minutes of Game 3, and Matt Niskanen followed it up by cross-checking the Pittsburgh Penguins captain in the face as he was falling to the ice, it wasn't surprising that some simply shrugged their shoulders and defended it as a "hockey play."

After all, this is playoff hockey.

That means concussions, like the one that knocked Crosby out for potentially the entire post-season, are part of the game. Was it dirty? Well, according to Capitals head coach Barry Trotz, it depends on what team you’re on.

"It’s like a car accident," Trotz told reporters. "You have your side how it happened and the other person will have his side. I mean, it’s perspective."

Yes, but why do the playoffs have to become a demolition derby? Why do they have to be called differently than the regular season? Why do they have to turn into the Hunger Games?

It shouldn’t matter if you’re a Capitals fan or a Penguins fan. We all lose in a scenario where the best player in the world is once again sitting in a dark room.

It sucks that we won’t get to see Crosby versus Ovechkin, two of the greatest players of this era trying to outscore each other. Instead of watching highlight-reel goals over and over again, we’re dissecting the super slo-mo replays of a player taking a pair of sticks to the head. That’s just brutal.

Hockey is a physical sport, where injuries are often unavoidable. But, while this might have been accidental, it was also preventable.

Blame the players for not respecting each other, but it’s the league that has to do a better job of protecting its talent — something that obviously isn’t happening based on the fact Ovechkin didn’t even receive a penalty on the play.

Can you imagine LeBron James dodging punches on his way to the rim? Or, worse, taking that level of abuse and not even getting to the free throw line?

Only hockey makes its star players run through a gauntlet of slashes, cheap hits and every time they touch the puck in the post-season. Only hockey seems to have two rulebooks: one for the regular season and a much-thinner version for the playoffs, which are really only guidelines.

Apparently, Crosby should have known what he was signing up for when he drove the puck to the net. He should have known that players were more interested in taking him out than taking the puck. You want to see skill? Go watch figure skating.

It’s not just Crosby. And it’s not just this series or this year’s playoffs.

A year ago, it was Kris Letang who delivered a headshot on Marcus Johansson. A week ago, Predators forward Kevin Fiala had his leg broken after Blues defenceman Robert Bortuzzo drove him needlessly into the end boards in Game 1. In the first round, it was Ovechkin who nearly had his knee blown out after receiving a low-bridge hit from Toronto’s Nazem Kadri.

Don Cherry called it a "beauty" hip check. Who knows, maybe he will call Ovechkin’s slash a "beauty" backcheck?

The thing is, Ovechkin’s play wasn’t even deemed dirty. At least, not according to officials. A total of 37 minutes in penalties were called in Game 3, including a five-minute major to Niskanen for the cross-check on Crosby. There could have been 37 more.

And yet, Ovechkin’s slash wasn’t one of them.

I’m not going to say what Ovechkin or even what Niskanen did was malicious or intentional. I don’t believe Trotz put a bounty on Crosby’s head or that the Capitals were purposely trying to take the best player on the ice out of the game. For those who do, please take off your tinfoil hats and log off Twitter.

At the same time, call the game.

Everyone knew the Capitals were going to have to raise their intensity level and do something to get back into a best-of-seven series they trailed 2-0.

There were reputations at stake. Not just for Ovechkin, who has been unfairly criticized as a player who cannot raise his level of play in the playoffs, but for the entire Capitals team.

Did they play Crosby harder than usual? Did they step over the line in trying to contain him? If so, it wasn’t anything we haven’t seen before.

Maybe, like Kariya, Crosby will return and play the hero once more. Maybe, like Bobby Clarke’s slash on Valeri Kharlamov in the 1972 Summit Series, this will be remembered as the time when Ovechkin was finally was willing to do whatever it took to win a Cup.

Either way, it seems like the NHL has another defining moment for its marketing campaign.

mtraikos@postmedia.com