Just days before their season opener last week, the Pittsburgh Penguins became an Internet smash when they put on an on-ice game of whiffle ball to show support for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
But that gesture and the few minutes of fun it brought may have been quite costly to the Pens -- and no one is yet certain just how costly.
James Neal, a 40-goal scorer and key member of the Penguins' second line, played in Pittsburgh's season opener on Oct. 3 (despite missing practice the day before and the morning skate on game day). He left the game in the first period after only 3 minutes, 49 seconds of ice time and has not played since, listed with an upper-body injury.
On Tuesday, David Todd, a radio host on ESPN 970 AM in Pittsburgh, tweeted that a source told him Neal suffered the injury in the whiffle ball game on Oct. 1, the day the Pirates got their first postseason win since 1992.
Was told by source #Penguins James Neal's injury is something similar to strained oblique. Suffered it when Pens played whiffle ball on ice.
-- David Todd (@DavidMTodd) October 8, 2013 Just minutes later, Sporting News NHL writer Sean Gentille tweeted the same thing.
Just heard from someone else that Neal indeed hurt himself playing wiffle ball.
-- Sean Gentille (@seangentille) October 8, 2013 So Penguins' GM Ray Shero, wanting to quash the potential firestorm, denied the tweets (through another reporter's tweet, of course).
'Not accurate, 100 percent not true.' Shero on report of Neal being injured in Whiffle ball game #pens
-- Rob Rossi (@RobRossi_Trib) October 8, 2013 Adding to the speculation has been the reluctance of Penguins coach Dan Bylsma to shed much light on the injury, saying last Friday only that Neal needs more evaluating before a timetable could be set, but that the forward is more week-to-week than day-to-day .
Regardless, Pittsburgh sports fans' eyes are focused on St. Louis, their prayers asking for a win on Wednesday as the Pirates take on the Cardinals in a do-or-die NLDS Game 5 at Busch Stadium. And Shero better be praying for a Pirates win, too, because as soon as the Buccos' season ends, with the Steelers in the toilet, Steel City will be turning its eyes to the ice.
H/t: Eye On Hockey