PITTSBURGH — The crowd at PPG Paints Arena made its judgment on Capitals forward Tom Wilson long before he hit Zach Aston-Reese in the second period of Game 3 on Tuesday night, booing him every time he touched the puck. Then came the thundering collision that sent Wilson flying into the Capitals’ bench and left Aston-Reese with a broken jaw and a concussion. More boos descended on Wilson.
The NHL weighed in about 24 hours later, banning Wilson for three playoff games for an illegal check to the head. The league determined that, although Wilson led with his shoulder, he elevated to make Aston-Reese’s head the main point of contact on a hit where that was considered avoidable. The check would have been legal had Wilson stayed low and delivered it through Aston-Reese’s core, according to the league.
The decision was handed down following a hearing Wednesday afternoon with George Parros, head of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, who was in the Pittsburgh press box Tuesday night.
Aston-Reese’s injury and Wilson’s status as a “repeat offender” with two suspensions this season were factored into the severity of the discipline.
If Wilson plays again in this series, it will be in a Game 7.
On social media, Wilson was quickly labeled a vicious, dirty headhunter whom the NHL has let slide time and time again. Some clips of the hit had replaced Wilson’s frame with a trash can. In the eyes of the Penguins, Wilson was unquestionably guilty. “It’s a high hit,” Coach Mike Sullivan said.
The Capitals were confident Wilson was innocent. “He hits clean. He just hits hard,” Washington goaltender Braden Holtby said.
The on-ice officials seemed to agree with the Capitals — “They all got together, and they said, ‘You know what, we’ve got a good, clean check here,’ ” NHL on-site supervisor Paul Devorski told a pool reporter after the game — and there was no penalty on the play.
For both the Capitals and Wilson, this playoff run underscores what will be an ongoing theme for his career. Wilson’s hard-hitting play is what makes him an effective player, an element Washington doesn’t want him to abandon even as he has evolved into a top-six forward. It’s also what now has his team down a crucial forward for three games, and it’s what will keep him under the spotlight with every one of his hits slowed down and analyzed frame by frame, intentions often assumed and judgment quickly dispatched.
“That reputation is going to unfortunately probably follow him around, especially with how hard he hits and how hard he plays,” Capitals forward Brett Connolly said. “He’s a guy that kind of hovers on that line. . . . And he’s going to keep playing the same way.”
And while most of Wilson’s checks are clean, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety has already examined three of his hits this postseason. In the first round, his hit on Columbus’s Alexander Wennberg caused the Blue Jackets center to miss three games, and a person with the league said Wilson escaped suspension “by the skin of his teeth” because the NHL didn’t have sufficient camera angles to prove Wennberg’s head was the main point of contact.
In Game 2 against the Penguins, Wilson’s collision with defenseman Brian Dumoulin clearly included head contact, but it was deemed unavoidable for how Dumoulin “materially changed” his position immediately before Wilson hit him.
And then, with Parros in the building for Game 3, Wilson leveled Aston-Reese.
“At some point, we would hope that the league might do something,” Sullivan said.
Three playoff games is a statement and a blow to the Capitals, who already are down one top-six forward with winger Andre Burakovsky injured.
Back in October, Wilson and General Manager Brian MacLellan met with Parros in Calgary, and Parros outlined tendencies for Wilson to avoid on certain hits. On Tuesday morning, after Wilson’s collision with Dumoulin but before his hit on Aston-Reese, Wilson acknowledged he might have to change his game with the times, an NHL that’s becoming less physical and more based in speed and skill. Wilson has developed those aspects of his game to fit into Washington’s top six, but what the Capitals appreciate most about their 24-year-old forward is that he can combine all three elements.
“There’s very few Tom Wilsons in the league,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “And that’s why he’s very effective because there’s few guys that have those abilities.”
Said defenseman Brooks Orpik: “It’s just kind of simple, right? Guys who throw more hits have more opportunities to have a bad hit. It’s obviously a big part of Tommy’s game. He does a lot of good things for us. For him to be effective, he can’t change his approach or be hindered by that at all.”
But this could be a tipping point for Wilson and the Capitals. They have a 2-1 series lead on the Penguins for the first time in three postseasons. And after Wilson managed to navigate the line between a hard, questionable hit and a suspension-worthy one in two other instances this postseason, he crossed it Tuesday night.
The NHL will be watching closely to see whether he does so again, and now it’s on Wilson to decide whether clinging to the part of the game that has gotten him here is worth putting his team in another compromising position going forward.
“I play a physical style, and that’s going to bring more attention to that type of thing than someone who doesn’t finish their checks like I do and play that hard type of hockey,” Wilson said Tuesday morning. “I’ve always prided myself on being an honest player. I try to play the game hard, play the game the way it was meant to be played, the right way, and I try to keep that element in my game no matter what role I’m playing. . . .
“There’s always going to be that reputation just because of the way I play the game. Obviously, the refs are going to be more prone to watch me versus maybe [Evgeny Kuznetsov] when he’s finishing a check. It’s a little bit different, you know? I’ll just try to keep playing my game.”
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