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With NHL suspensions, does the punishment fit the crime or the injury?

Marcus Johansson is helped by a trainer after a hit by Kris Letang in Game 3. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
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This item has been updated.

PITTSBURGH – When the verdict arrived for Washington Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik – a three-game suspension for a hit described by the NHL’s Department of Player Safety as “unacceptably high and excessively late” – it led to discussion of a different hit in a different game with a different opponent.

Philadelphia’s Pierre-Edouard Bellemare had received a one-game suspension for a hit from behind on Washington’s Dmitry Orlov, and the injury on that hit could’ve been “career-ending,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. But Orlov just had scratches on his face and returned to the game, lucky that his head and neck weren’t hurt.

“I’m disappointed, but I’m not surprised based on who we’re playing and all of that,” Trotz said.

Asked to clarify those remarks later, Trotz said, “take it for whatever you want.”

Both hits were dangerous, but why the disparity in suspension lengths? One factor is that Orpik has been suspended before, and Bellemare hadn’t been. The other possible consideration is that Orlov wasn’t injured on the play, while Orpik’s hit on Olli Maatta caused the Penguins defenseman to leave the game and not return, suffering an apparent concussion.

This has all set an unfortunate stage for this Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Capitals and Penguins, which is tainted now by three bad hits. After the first game, Tom Wilson was fined for kneeing Conor Sheary. The second game featured Orpik’s hit on Maatta.

Monday night’s third game involved a high hit by defenseman Kris Letang on Washington’s Marcus Johansson, and after Trotz criticized the league by implying the length of Orpik’s suspension was related to the league giving preferential treatment to the Penguins, the NHL will now be scrutinized for how it handles Letang’s hit that didn’t result in an injury. Letang received a one-game suspension on Tuesday afternoon for a “forceful, high hit.”

When the Department of Player Safety releases its video explanations for suspension, if an injury was involved is one of the things mentioned in the summary. Should the severity of the injury even be considered? According Article 18.2 in the collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and the NHLPA, injury is a factor that must be considered when deciding supplemental discipline.

“It shouldn’t have a bearing,” Trotz said on Monday morning. “I don’t know if it does or not. That’s a league issue. The league does a good job; I’ve said that before, I’m not going to contradict what I said. I believe they do a really good job. It’s a tough job to do. And it shouldn’t be based on injury; it should be based on situation. I think looking back at the previous series, I think Maata might have been hurt sort of the same way in the previous series, but who knows? He got hit a couple times.”

Orlov stuck his hand out before his collision into the boards, likely saving him a serious injury, but that doesn’t change the viciousness of the hit by Bellemare. Had Sheary torn a knee ligament, would Wilson have been suspended instead of fined, even though the action itself isn’t any different?

Johansson had to undergo concussion protocol after Letang’s hit, and while he returned to the game, he still took issue with the hit. But it’s possible that Letang, who had a hearing with the Department of Player Safety on Tuesday, didn’t receive a punishment as severe as Orpik’s in part because Johansson finished the game. The hit was also not quite as late as Orpik’s was, though Johansson also wasn’t eligible to be checked on the play.

“He obviously leaves his feet and hits me in the head, and, I mean, that’s the kind of play you want out of the league,” Johansson said. “It doesn’t look good.”

Said Letang: “I saw him coming full speed, and I tried to step up in the middle. But things happen fast. I can’t tell you right now. It was just a step up to hit him. Not intentional.”