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Tom Wilson wants to keep the Caps-Penguins series ‘clean and hard’

Tom Wilson grabs Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang during the first period of Game 3. (By Gene J. Puskar / AP)
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Tom Wilson was asked Tuesday afternoon about how the Washington Capitals can maintain their physical play from Game 3 without crossing over into unnecessary aggression. His answer was long and sort of nuanced, but one snippet of it caused a bit of online consternation, so it seems worth publishing his answer in full.

“I don’t think it’s unnecessary aggression,” he said. “I hope that [Kris] Letang’s intent is not to get [Marcus Johansson’s] head. He’s trying to step up and make a body check. And we’re trying to do the same thing on their D — we’re trying to get in and use our body and make it hard on them. It’s a hard-hitting game, a fast game, and unfortunately that ends up in a little head contact.

“And when we’re hitting and when we’re forechecking and playing fast, that’s our best hockey,” Wilson said, accurately. “You look at the stats, I think we had 58 hits to their [25]. When the Capitals are playing that way, that’s our best hockey. When you’re hitting guys, that means that you’re in on the forecheck and you’re playing hard, so we’re not looking to change. We’re looking to play Game 4 exactly the way we played Game 3: just hard and intense. And they’re doing a good job at kind of playing fast and stingy, and they obviously got the win last game. So we’ve got to critique a couple things and get back out [there].”

Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov goes from scratch to skating with John Carlson

Then Wilson was asked if the cumulative impact of Washington’s physical play might be seen later in the series.

“Yeah, for sure,” he said. “Every team that you talk to, every player that you talk to says playoffs is definitely about having the opportunity to wear down another team over a seven-game series. You start out in Game 1, and every hit matters. If you have a little bit of a sore shoulder, or something’s sore, then you’re a little bit more hesitant to make a play. It’s a physical sport, that’s the nature of the sport, and guys are hard on each other. That’s why people love the game, right?

“So it’s a fine line,” he continued. “Obviously guys are trying to make those hits and to play hard, but there’s obviously a line there, and we’ve seen a couple unfortunate circumstances. But that’s happened all year, and that’s what the [Department of Player Safety] is for. And yeah, I’d love to be able to go out there and drop the gloves and grab Letang, but it’s a new age, and it’s not old-school hockey anymore. You know what, the league’s gonna take care of it and hopefully we can kind of keep the rest of the series clean and hard.”

Some people interpreted this remark to mean Wilson is a classless goon who has no place in this modern sport, but I’m not sure that’s exactly the way it felt in person. Regardless, Wilson’s coach also spoke at length about his team differentiating between impactful physical play and costly aggression.

“I think we’ve done a pretty decent job of that,” Barry Trotz said. “You know, in the playoffs everybody’s playing with an edge. I don’t think you can watch any series and say that no one is. You’ve got to play between the whistles and you’ve got to stay in the moment so that you don’t go over that edge.

“And sometimes it’s a fine line,” Trotz went on. “I mean, you have to make decisions. It’s an emotional game, and your reactions sometimes have consequences. And sometimes they don’t, but you’ve got to play between the whistles. I think we’ve done a better job of that than in the first series. In the first series it was very emotional and very physical and very nasty. I think this one is hard, but it’s not nasty, over the edge like I thought it was in the first series against Philadelphia.”

Capitals analyst calls Kris Letang’s suspension ‘kind of comical’

As my pal Jon Press pointed out, the Caps dominated Monday’s Game 3 both in shots and in hits. That game, he noted, was “the first time since the start of the 2007-08 season in which a team had five-on-five hits and shot attempt differentials above plus-30 each,” a fairly remarkable thing to happen in a playoff game between two top-flight teams. Matt Niskanen was asked on Tuesday about that double-edged domination

“You want to be physical and have an affect that way, but you don’t want to be running out of position for it either, and I don’t think we were,” Niskanen said. “If we were in a position to pressure a guy, if you have them in a tough position, then you want to finish for a couple of reasons: You’re trying to create turnovers and you’re trying to leave an [impact] on him. And maybe the next play he’s going to move it a little quicker than he wants to because he knows he’s getting hit. So yeah, we had the puck a lot last night, but I think we managed it really well. If we weren’t able to set up a play, we were able to set up our pressure and set up our forecheck.”