Dunlap: Niskanen Play Wholly Unnecessary

PITTSBURGH (93-7 The Fan) – I don’t know if Matt Niskanen is a dirty player.

I know he made a dirty play. A wholly unnecessary and ridiculous play that crossed the line into an unwarranted attack.

That’s the sum of it for me. I’m not going to judge the totality of the man by one event and label him a dirty player, but there is no question when his stick clashed with Sidney Crosby’s head in a Game 3 of a playoff series between the Penguins and the Capitals on Monday night, Niskanen made a slimy, dirty and egregious play.

I don’t see how anyone can see otherwise.

It wasn’t a “hockey play.”

It wasn’t a guy finishing a check.

It wasn’t a guy playing to the whistle or some hard-nosed play people should celebrate.

Nope. None of that.

It was a guy — Niskanen in this case — purposefully and resolutely deciding to act outside the confines of the rules to accomplish nothing but inflict pain on an opponent.

“A collision is going to happen, and it’s going to happen fast,” Niskanen said as he recalled the play in postgame interviews. “I caught [Crosby] up high with the stick.”

Niskanen was then immediately asked if he meant to cross-check Crosby in the head.

“Absolutely not,” he straightforwardly answered. “It wasn’t intentional. I’ve seen the replay in super slo-mo and it looks really bad. … he’s coming across trying to score and as he’s doing that he’s getting lower and lower.”

Get this — I saw the play at real-time speed the very first time and knew what happened right away. I knew the puck was gone and Crosby didn’t have a chance to score by the time he reached Niskanen. I knew Alexander Ovechkin delivered a couple wallops to Crosby with his stick – and a trip — that threw the Penguins’ captain off-balance before he reached Niskanen and rendered him very vulnerable. I knew Niskanen looked like a man who took the opportunity to finish off an opponent who was in an already susceptible position.

That’s slimy stuff.

None of that is a hockey play.

All of that is dirty and unnecessary; the kind of play that serves no purpose other than to perpetrate pain.

Then, I watched the play at least 10 times in slow motion, as Niskanen assumed everyone did as they drew their opinion of it. And even after I drew an opinion it was dirty by seeing it live and in real-time, my opinion was only strengthened by what I saw when it was slowed down.

Do yourself a favor and focus in on Washington goaltender Braden Holtby in the slow-motion replays.

Watch Holtby and Holtby only.

He poke checks the puck away from Crosby and then forgets about Sid as Crosby continues through the front side of the crease and to the backpost.

Know why? Even a magician with the puck like Crosby was done on that play when Holtby poked the puck and it went bounding away. Sid became a non-entity, zero threat the moment Holtby dispossessed him on that play because the puck careened so forcefully out toward the left faceoff dot.

Everyone saw it and everyone realized it — Sid was no longer a threat on that play.

Everyone recognized it but Niskanen, who still felt the need to wipe out Crosby even as Holtby never bothered to make an attempt to track to the back post. Again, Holtby knew Sid was rendered useless on the play when the puck was poked away, but Niskanen seemed to be the only person in the building to not understand this.

So Niskanen laid Crosby out anyway. He smashed him with a stick and caused all this.

It was unnecessary and reckless. There isn’t a way to excuse it away.

Matt Niskanen can talk all he wants about how fast the game moves or needing to make a decision in a split second — that’s all well in good. On that play, Niskanen was going to hit Sidney Crosby late come hell or high water, he was going to finish off Crosby even as Crosby was finished on the play.

Niskanen might not be a dirty player, but don’t give me any nonsense about that being anything but a tremendously dirty play.

Colin Dunlap is a featured columnist at CBSPittsburgh.com. He can also be heard weekdays from 5:40 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Sports Radio 93-7 “The Fan.” You can e-mail him at colin.dunlap@cbsradio.com. Check out his bio here.

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