PITTSBURGH — It figures, given the depth and complexity of the relationship between the hockey franchises in Washington and Pittsburgh, that a hit that leads to an injury on a Tuesday night can’t just be a hit that leads to an injury on a Tuesday night. It has to be an event that colours the rest of the series and gets to deep questions about the sport of hockey, what it once was and what it will be in the future.
The NHL on Wednesday suspended Capitals forward Tom Wilson for the next three games of the playoffs, games that will likely all come against the Penguins in the second round, for his check of Pittsburgh rookie Zach Aston-Reese, an obliteration near the Capitals’ bench that left Aston-Reese with a broken jaw and a concussion.
It seemed, in the moments after the game, to be the kind of distraction that could, in fact, benefit the Capitals, who lead the series two games to one entering Thursday’s Game 4. Get the Penguins focused on Wilson instead of on Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom? You’d make that trade every day.
Now? Now it’s no longer a distraction. It’s a front-and-centre character in the series, which could be altered by Wilson’s absence. Moreover, it points to the complicated issues the NHL has with blows that involve the head as we learn more about their consequences — seemingly by the day. Hockey is a fast and rough sport. How can it be both of those things — and still be safe?
Inhale, exhale, Capitals fans. This isn’t a conspiracy in favour of one (charmed) franchise over another (star-crossed) club. Still, what we have here is a development that fits perfectly into the history of the 11 playoff series between these two teams. For three games, they have played mostly riveting hockey. Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has scored twice and has two assists. Washington captain Ovechkin has a goal in each game, including the winner with 67 seconds remaining in Game 3, and two assists as well. It’s what we came for, with many more goodies promised ahead.
And yet, where these two are concerned, there always seems to be something to hijack the entire affair. Even without the Wilson suspension Wednesday — and we’ll get to that — there were all sorts of ancillary elements floating about the ether. Did Crosby, in the midst of the kind of tussle that became prevalent throughout Tuesday night, actually spit at some Capitals? (Doesn’t seem likely.) Did Wilson, with Aston-Reese struggling to even get to the locker room, laugh at his fallen prey? (Seems he was smiling at a teammate’s joke about all the boos that rained down on him.)
It’s too much. Violent hits. Childish back-and-forth chirping. With the Caps and the Pens, it’s always something.
“There’s a lot of history,” Washington forward Brett Connolly said Wednesday. “There’s a lot of bad blood.”
Which makes decisions such as the one the NHL made Wednesday even more fraught. Silly as it seems, it plays into the Washington fan’s mindset that the league always has favoured Crosby over Ovechkin. That’s a garbage way of thinking, but it unquestionably creeps into the psyche. The Caps used their comeback win Tuesday night to go up in the series. Now, to win it, they’ll have to do it short-handed — at least until a seventh game, when Wilson would be eligible to return.
The suspension: I realize Wilson, as the league pointed out, is a “repeat offender.” He has a reputation and a past, and once the NHL’s Department of Player Safety determines his hit to be illegal, then that reputation and past come into play in determining the punishment. His most severe violation came when he boarded St. Louis’ Sam Blais during a pre-season game last fall, a move that cost him the first four games of 2017-18, his only regular-season suspension. Such transgressions, the NHL wants players to know, have lasting impacts.
However, are we supposed to believe that Wilson’s run-in with Penguins defenceman Brian Dumoulin in Game 2 of this series — a hit that knocked Dumoulin out for the rest of that game, but not for any more of the series — didn’t play a part in this evaluation? The NHL’s own explanation of letting Wilson off on that hit argued, “He does not initiate a hit that picks the head as the main point of contact.” How about Wilson’s charging call for a hit on Columbus’s Alexander Wennberg in the post-season opener, an infraction that was called on the ice but which the player safety folks didn’t think warranted further discipline?
Hold those thoughts for a moment.
Think about the last time a hit between players on these two teams helped shape a playoff series. (I told you their relationship was deep and complicated.) This was just two years ago, in the first period of Game 2, when Washington defenceman Brooks Orpik levelled Pittsburgh’s Olli Maatta.
On that play, Maatta shot the puck. A full second elapsed. Orpik appeared to alter his course at the last minute. He then delivered a high, hard hit.
The officials on the ice whistled Orpik for interference. The Department of Player Safety noted that Orpik had twice before been suspended for violations. And so the assessment, then, was three games. Orpik, a former Penguin, reappeared in Game 6, which the Capitals lost in overtime to end their season.
There are several differences in Wilson’s hit Tuesday night. First, as a player who was handling the puck, Aston-Reese was eligible to be checked. But even as he sprawled on the ice, clearly injured, the four on-ice officials at PPG Paints Arena gathered and determined there would not be a penalty.
In explaining its ruling, the Department of Player Safety issued a video that showed a reverse angle — essentially from the Caps’ bench — that, according to the narration, showed, “The head is the main point of contact on this hit.”
“To me,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said earlier in the day, “it looked body-on-body.”
It’s funny what our eyes can tell us. I’ve watched it 10 times from the new angle, and I still think it’s possible — possible — Wilson’s left shoulder gets into Aston-Reese’s body first. No matter. The NHL determined otherwise.
The next point the NHL considers: Was the hit unavoidable? Wilson certainly altered his route to lead with his left shoulder. He absolutely extended up through the hit. And he eventually was propelled off his feet.
Three games. And another chapter in this rivalry. Will it change the Capitals’ course? That’s up to them.
Either way, the injury to Aston-Reese is serious, and must be taken seriously. And so we come to what probably should be the crux of all this: We know that CTE is real. We know concussions can have adverse effects on athletes long after their playing days are over. So the broadest, most important question: Should hits to the head, even those that are accidental or inevitable, be eliminated from the sport of hockey?
“I think that’s every sport,” Trotz said. “We’ve got to get it out.”
That, long-term, makes some sense. But that, in the short term, also means that the Tom Wilsons of the world — a world in which very few Tom Wilsons exist anymore — need to change the way they play. It means, fundamentally, that players must be taught to execute differently, to check differently, to evaluate decisions differently.
There is, in that one play Tuesday night, a lasting impact on this series going forward. But there may be, too, a statement about how the NHL wants its game to be played. If that’s the case, then spell it out in the rulebook: High hits that end up reaching the head will not be tolerated under any circumstances. If the powers that be make that change, maybe we’ll have a Capitals-Penguins series where we get to focus on strategy and skill, not injuries and intent.