Chris Simon, the Washington Capitals' leading goal scorer this season, was suspended for Game 2 of his team's first-round playoff series today against the Pittsburgh Penguins for a cross-checking incident late in Thursday night's 7-0 loss.
The Capitals had been bracing for the suspension. Simon did not skate with the team's regulars at practice yesterday at Piney Orchard, and the team was notified of the suspension afterward. But before that, Coach Ron Wilson blasted the team for its play in Game 1.
About 15 minutes into the workout, Wilson stopped all drills and called the players to the center of the rink, excoriating them for nearly 10 minutes. That included collective and individual criticism, some of which was directed by name at defensemen Ken Klee, Sergei Gonchar and Joe Reekie.
"I messed up," Klee said, "and we had some others guys do it, too. . . . We have to get back to playing our style of hockey."
The NHL is cracking down on illegal use of the stick, especially to an opponent's head. Simon, who scored a career-high 29 goals this season, whacked Penguins defenseman Peter Popovic in the jaw with Washington trailing 6-0. Popovic dropped to the ice, remained there for several minutes and was helped off the ice. Simon received a two-minute penalty.
Capitals General Manager George McPhee declined to comment on the suspension, a blow that occurred days after league officials altered the format of this series because of scheduling conflicts at Pittsburgh's Mellon Arena. Games 2 and 3 will be in Pittsburgh; Game 4 and, if necessary, Game 5 will be at MCI Center.
"I'm kind of expecting" Simon to be suspended, Wilson said before sitting in on a conference call with NHL officials. "I just want to be prepared and practice that way. . . . I don't think there was any intent on Si's part. It wasn't premeditated or anything like that. He was protecting himself and ended up getting his stick up, and when you see the follow-through, he only had one hand on the stick. He let go of it when he realized how high it was. I can only hope the league sees what we saw."
With Simon out, Wilson altered three of his offensive lines. Top center Adam Oates will have Joe Sacco and Joe Murphy on his wings. Andrei Nikolishin now is centering Peter Bondra and Richard Zednik. The third line--Jeff Halpern, Steve Konowalchuk and Ulf Dahlen--remains the same, with Jim McKenzie joining Terry Yake and Glen Metropolit on the fourth line. In addition, defenseman Dmitri Mironov will replace Rob Zettler. But Wilson is looking for more than personnel changes; he wants a completely different game from his players.
Thursday night, his players did all the things that could make this a quick series for Pittsburgh.
They played without discipline and fell behind early. They were burned on the power play. They failed to establish their forechecking game and were sucked into a run-and-gun style. They did not consistently test journeyman goalie Ron Tugnutt. They rarely came close to capitalizing on the man advantage.
Yesterday, Wilson chided his team for trying to play like Pittsburgh, which favors a finesse game. "We were trying to prove we're more skilled than them, and we're not," Wilson said.
He called some of the Capitals' defensive breakdowns inexcusable. Then he emphasized fundamentals on the ice--making safe defensive plays, putting the puck on net and going hard to the crease for deflections and rebounds--hoping for a much different outcome in Game 2.
"We didn't do our job, and now he has to do his job yelling at us," defenseman Calle Johansson said. "That's the name of the game. If you can't take it, you're in the wrong business. That's the way it has to be.
"He doesn't want to be mean--he just wants to get us going. That's the whole idea. Coaches get frustrated and they want to win as bad as anybody else. I would be really surprised if he didn't do anything. Then I would kind of doubt him and say, 'Doesn't he care--doesn't he want to win?' Hey, we can't blame him for [the lecture]."
It wasn't the first time this season Wilson felt compelled to offer stern criticism. He's done so occasionally when the team's play has slipped, often provoking a renewed effort. Now, the margin for error is slimmer than ever.
"It's all about habits," Wilson said. "We had great habits for a long time, and the last month defensively we've been sloppy and it's cost us some games--it might have actually cost us first place in the conference--and we've got to get back to playing a sound defensive game.
"[Thursday] night is a great example of what happens when your focus is more on offense than defense when playing a team like Pittsburgh. With the six or seven great offensive people they have up front, you're going to get embarrassed."