Right or wrong, hockey has always had its own brand of on-ice justice where players are made to answer for slights both real and perceived by being challenged to a fight. It’s an enduring part of the NHL, and the ability for players to stand up for teammates is part of the reason many believe fisticuffs always will have a place in the game. That doesn’t mean it’s not odd to see players have to fight after delivering a clean hit.
Thirteen minutes and 49 seconds into the second period of the Capitals’ game in Buffalo Sunday night, the system was at work.
Rookie winger Tom Wilson, who is establishing a reputation as a relentless physical presence, delivered a shoulder check against Ville Leino that sent the Sabres forward flying along the boards. The hit was clean and there was no penalty on the play, but Sabres forward Marcus Foligno took exception to Wilson’s crunching check and incited a fight moments later.
Even though it was a legal hit, Wilson wasn’t surprised he had to drop the gloves.
“I learned the hard way a couple times not being ready” for a potential fight, Wilson said. “Now when you hit a guy hard and clean, you’ve got to be ready for it because there’s always going to be guys worried about [having a] teammate down, willing to come up to you ready to go.”
Wilson himself has been on the opposite end of the equation. He jumped Calgary’s Lance Bouma after the forward finished a routine check that injured Jack Hillen in the second game of the year.
Wilson isn’t one to back down from a challenge either, and in Buffalo, he saw an opportunity to give the Capitals the upper hand by appeasing Foligno. After the bout, Washington received a power play when, in addition to coincidental fighting majors, the Sabres forward was given a minor penalty for instigating and a corresponding 10-minute misconduct.
“That’s huge if I can get our team a power play at that point in the game,” said Wilson, who understood why Foligno confronted him. “He’s just trying to stand up for his teammate, and a lot of guys in this locker room would do the same if they feel that it’s a charge or a high hit. A lot of guys in this locker room would do the same if they feel that [something was] a charge or a high hit.”
Veteran Troy Brouwer concurred that in certain circumstances players will feel the need to respond to even clean hits, especially ones to top players. He doesn’t see anything wrong with this particular fact of NHL life either.
“It’s a big hit on one of their skill players and that is never going to go unchallenged. Guys are always going to stand up for their skill players,” Brouwer said. “It’s the same if someone would hit Nicky or Ovi on our team. That’s understandable; it’s part of the game and part of the game that’s never going to go away.”