Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson was suspended for three games for an illegal check to the head of the Pittsburgh Penguins' Zach Aston-Reese, who suffered a broken jaw and concussion on the play. (Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
The Capitals and Penguins have played three games in their second-round series. The action has featured a pair of shoulder-to-head hits by Washington’s Tom Wilson, the latest resulting in a broken jaw and concussion for Pittsburgh’s Zach Aston-Reese in Game 3 — and a three-game suspension for Wilson.
Caps fans would be livid if, say, Brett Connolly was knocked from action with a borderline hit from the same Pittsburgh player who caused, say, Matt Niskanen to exit the previous game after a similar blow.
Washingtonians’ opinion entering Game 3 would’ve been loud and clear: There should’ve been a suspension!
But since Pittsburgh defenseman Brian Dumoulin was on the receiving end Sunday in Game 2, Caps fans were relieved when the NHL decided Wilson and his shoulders could carry on. After reviewing the play, the Department of Player Safety determined that Dumoulin moved his head just prior to contact, making the contact unavoidable.
Maybe that was the right call. Just like in the NFL, deciphering split-second. high-speed movements in super slow-motion is an exceedingly frustrating — and often ineffective — way to legislate games. Especially when trying to gauge intent.
The league also ruled in Wilson’s favor during the first-round series against Columbus, when his shoulder-to-head hit drew a penalty and caused Blue Jackets forward Alex Wennberg to miss the next three games.
The trend is bright red, in all caps.
“The hit on Wennberg for me is a dangerous hit,” Columbus general manager Jarmo Kekalainen told reporters after the Blue Jackets won the series opener.
After the Dumoulin incident, Penguins defenseman Kris Letang told reporters “we all know who (Wilson) is and what he does on the ice. We expect that from him.”
Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan mostly held his tongue following Game 2. But Tuesday, after Alex Ovechkin’s goal with 67 seconds left gave Washington a 2-1 series lead, Sullivan let it out.
“We lose a guy to a broken jaw that’s going to require surgery and a concussion because of another high hit to the head,” he told reporters. “At some point, we would hope that the league might do something.”
Wilson wasn’t penalized immediately for the hit, as officials at the game, amazingly, concluded the contact was shoulder-to-shoulder. That prompted a reasonable question from Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto on Twitter:
“How do you break a jaw when it’s just shoulder-to-shoulder?”
The league corrected that mistake a day later, suspending Wilson for three games for an illegal hit.
After Tuesday’s game, the Capitals chose not to make Wilson available to reporters, leaving it to teammates and coach Barry Trotz to explain/defend No. 43’s actions.
They would never admit it, but I suppose the task can be tiresome.
You know the line about certain players, how they’re loved when on your team but hated when on the opposing team? That’s usually a nice way of saying those guys are jerks. Their style often falls on the wrong side of the line according to impartial observers opposed to impassioned fans.
Trotz and Ovechkin and others in the Caps’ dressing room can’t come out say “Tom is dirty,” even if they believe it. That would be heresy.
They might talk about it among themselves. They might chew him out in private conversations. They might grouse to a confidante. But they can’t make a public declaration, can’t violate the code that binds teams across sports. United fronts, we’re in this together, and all that.
If not, he has a well-earned reputation for plays that raise the question.
And he’s not living it down with three iffy hits through nine game this postseason. He has an uncanny knack for winding up in situations where questionable, controversial contact occurs. Hitting opponents in the noggin might happen a lot, but it’s always unavoidable and unintentional, just a regrettable result of guys zipping around on ice skates.
“I’m at no point trying to target the head at all,” Wilson told reporters Sunday after the Dumoulin incident.
If Wilson in fact is dirty, he’s really good at playing innocent.
According to Pro Hockey Talk, he’s the most penalized player since he entered the league in 2013-14. Despite all those penalties, and despite all the ejections and marginal plays, before Wednesday’s action by the league, he’d been fined or suspended only three times.
The Department of Player Safety began rectifying that with Wednesday’s suspension.
I’m all for giving someone the benefit of the doubt, on principle. But when the same guy needs it over and over, it makes me wonder if he truly deserves it.
Even when he plays for the home team.
• Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.