The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tom Wilson’s most controversial hits, from Brayden Schenn to Zach Aston-Reese

Tom Wilson smiles on the bench after knocking Zach Aston-Reese out of Tuesday’s Game 3. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)
Placeholder while article actions load

Capitals forward Tom Wilson received a three-game suspension Wednesday following a hearing with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. At issue was Wilson’s hit to the head — or was it the shoulder? — of Zach Aston-Reese in Tuesday’s Game 3, which left the Penguins forward with a concussion and a broken jaw.

Scrutinizing questionable hits by Wilson, who easily leads all NHL players in regular season penalty minutes since he entered the league in 2013, is nothing new. In fact, this is the third time it’s happened this postseason, although the two previous incidents did not lead to a suspension. Wilson is considered a repeat offender by the league, after being suspended twice in the span of eight days for illegal checks this preseason, and his reputation as a player who sometimes straddles the line between being physical and reckless dates to his rookie year.

For one fan base at least in Capitals-Penguins series, Tom Wilson is a big hit

Here’s a look back at a few of the more controversial hits from the 24-year-old Wilson’s five-year NHL career, leading up to this week’s polarizing suspension. It illustrates the difficult task the NHL’s Department of Player Safety has in reviewing questionable hits: After almost every contentious Wilson  incident, some observers are convinced the hit was perfectly legal while others believe it was suspension-worthy.

Dec. 19, 2013: Brayden Schenn

Thirty-four games into his first regular season with the Capitals, Wilson received a five-minute major and a game misconduct for charging after sending Flyers center Brayden Schenn headfirst into the boards. Wilson texted Schenn, who avoided serious injury on the play, to apologize after the game, while Capitals Coach Adam Oates defended the hit.

“He’s a big, strong guy,” Oates said of his 6-foot-4, 200-plus-pound rookie. “He hit him in the elbow first. He went through the guy, that’s all. That’s how I see it.”

“It’s a tough, reckless play; a hit from behind,” Flyers Coach Craig Berube said.

Wilson had a phone hearing with the NHL, but avoided a suspension. Then-NHL vice president of player safety Brendan Shanahan noted in a video explaining the league’s decision that Schenn turned his back to avoid the check, which “greatly contributed to the outcome.”

“I think I made a clean check,” Wilson said, after learning that he wouldn’t be suspended. “It’s not like I wasn’t penalized. It was a 2-2 game and I cost the team the game. That was a pretty big penalty for me — the five-minute major, that really lost us the game. It’s not like I didn’t get any games. I kind of look at that game as [a one-game suspension]; I put the team down a man for five minutes and it cost us.”

April 2015: Lubomir Visnovsky

During the second period of Game 4 of the Capitals’ first round playoff series against the Islanders in 2015, Wilson was assessed a charging minor for leveling New York defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky.

“It was a hard, clean hit,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said after the game. “He didn’t leave his feet, he stayed low, puck’s right there, all those things. Tom Wilson didn’t do anything other than run him over. Tom Wilson’s a lot bigger than their player and he hit him clean. It’s really no different than like Martin or Clutterbuck or Cizikas, they’re hitting hard and they’re hitting clean.”

“Whenever I make a body check, I’m trying to make sure I’m doing everything as clean as possible, staying on my feet and finishing hard and low through the guy’s body,” Wilson said. “He’s a littler guy and obviously … he wasn’t feeling great afterwards. It’s tough. I hope he’s feeling alright. You never want to see a guy go down like that, but it’s a hard enough sport and it’s a hard-hitting sport, so that’s going to happen.”

The Islanders, who were without Visnovsky for the final three games of the series, saw things differently.

“We could have easily hit a lot of guys like that too, but we stay within the rules and play the game the right way,” Islanders captain John Tavares told reporters. “The puck wasn’t even close to where Lubo was, so it was just a complete target of a defenseless player.”

“He’s an idiot,” Islanders forward Kyle Okposo said of Wilson. “That guy runs around, he hits reckless. He jumps, leaves his feet. There’s no place for that.”

Wilson didn’t face any supplemental discipline for the hit.

Dec. 10, 2015: Brian Campbell

Wilson received a major for boarding and a game misconduct the following season, but did not face any supplemental discipline for checking Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell from behind and into the boards in a 4-1 loss.

Dec. 16, 2015: Curtis Lazar

Less than a week after his hit on Campbell, Wilson received a match penalty for a hit on Senators center Curtis Lazar late in the third period of a 2-1 Capitals win.

“You can be your own judge,” Trotz said of the hit after the game. “I don’t even know if that was a penalty in the league. … The point of contact is at his hip. His hands are down. He’s tracking the puck. He’s trying to take his space because Lazar’s cutting, trying to get by our defenseman and he was taking space. I feel bad for Willy, but the guys, they fought through that. The league’s very good at using common sense on plays, so I’m sure they’ll look at that and I’m sure that [Capitals GM Brian MacLellan] will talk to the league on that one, and we’ll go from there.”

Wilson avoided suspension and the league rescinded the match penalty, removing it from Wilson’s record, after deciding that Wilson first made contact with Lazar’s hip. Still, Wilson was developing a reputation, and he knew it.

“I’ve been that kind of player my whole life, that physical player, and I just have to trust … my habits,” Wilson said then. “When I’m going in to hit someone, my reads, my instincts — I just have to trust that those are going to be good, because I’ve played within the rules until this point, and obviously, that could have maybe been a two-minute penalty, it could have been no penalty, it could have been what it was — a five-minute penalty. … [The referees] were trying to do their jobs, and I completely understand that. It’s just frustrating that maybe if it’s another player, it might not be a five-minute match penalty. I don’t know what goes into it.”

April 2016: Conor Sheary

During Game 1 of the Capitals-Penguins second round series in 2016, Wilson delivered a knee-on-knee hit to Pittsburgh forward Conor Sheary while heading to the bench for a line change. Wilson wasn’t penalized and Sheary remained in the game, but the hit was a hot topic of discussion after Washington’s 4-3 overtime win.

“I have no idea, but I’m sure those guys, they’re pretty diligent with their job,” Penguins Coach Mike Sullivan said of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety when asked if Wilson should face supplemental discipline. “I’m sure they’ll look at everything. They’ll do whatever they think is appropriate.”

Trotz declined to comment on the hit during his postgame news conference, explaining that he didn’t get a good view of the play. The following day, the Capitals’ coach described the hit as shin-on-shin.

“Sheary gives a little shimmy, and it was really shin-on-shin,” Trotz said. “We leave everything to the league. Whatever they decide, I think we’re fine with. That’s what their job is, and we’ve got to respect what they do. Player safety with the NHL has done, I think, a good job. It’s not the easiest job, I know that. Whatever they decide, we’re fine with.”

The NHL Department of Player safety announced a $2,403.67 fine, but no suspension, for Wilson. The fine was the maximum allowable under the league’s collective bargaining agreement.

December 31, 2016: Tom Moore

The following season, New Jersey defenseman John Moore had to be carried off the ice on a stretcher after being hit from behind by Wilson and then crashing into the boards. Moore was diagnosed with a concussion.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say it was a dirty play,” Devils Coach John Hynes said. “It looked like a hit from behind. His back was turned on the glass and he was hit pretty hard into the glass. It looked like it was a penalty. The refs felt because he didn’t get launched into the glass it wasn’t a penalty. It’s not my decision to buy or not buy [that].”

“Never want to see that,” Wilson said. “But I’m going in on the forecheck, his back is to me, so I tried to let up a little bit — I wasn’t trying to finish my check — and kind of rubbed him out. Honestly, I wasn’t aware he really had gone down until I looked back. That play happens an awful lot in hockey, those over pucks. I don’t know if he couldn’t get his hands up to protect himself or whatever, but obviously not my intent and wishing him the best.”

The Department of Player Safety did not schedule a hearing to review the hit and Wilson avoided further discipline.

September 22, 2017: Robert Thomas

During his junior days, Wilson was once suspended for five games by the Ontario Hockey League for hitting from behind, but his first NHL suspension came as a result of all a hit that didn’t draw a penalty in a preseason game.

In announcing that Wilson would be suspended for two preseason contests, the NHL Department of Player Safety cited the “predatory nature and force” of Wilson’s hit on the Blues’ Robert Thomas, further explaining that it came more than a full second after the St. Louis center lost control of the puck and was eligible to be checked.

“I didn’t go through it; I saw it real briefly just on the monitor,” Trotz said of the hit. “I didn’t think anything of it, but obviously they did. And they watch that a lot closer than we do. I was a little surprised. But whatever decision that they have, we’ll handle it.”

October 1, 2017: Sam Blais

Eight days later, in another preseason game against the Blues, Wilson was suspended for the first four games of the regular season for boarding Sam Blais.

In the video explanation of the suspension, the Department of Player Safety said that Wilson, given his angle of approach, was never in position to deliver a legal body check on the defenseless Blais.

“While we understand Wilson’s explanation that he attempted to move around Blais in a way that would enable him to deliver a shoulder-to-shoulder check, he was unsuccessful in this attempt,” the league said. “The onus is on Wilson to deliver this hit in a legal fashion, minimize the force of this hit, or avoid this hit completely. Instead, having seen nothing but Blais’s numbers for some time, he drives forcefully through Blais’s upper back, driving him dangerously into the boards.”

Wilson was assessed a major penalty and game misconduct for the hit during the game.

“It’s tough,” Wilson said after the suspension was announced. “For four years, five years, you just go out there, you play your game. And then this thing happens in the preseason, an interference call, and now you’re playing with a bit of a record now and it’s maybe a little bit tougher, but that’s part of the sport. They’re trying to protect guys. They’re trying to make sure that everything’s played within the rules. People will have their opinions and I just got to trust my game . . . . You’ve got to play within the rules. You’ve got to play hard. But that physical element’s part of my game.”

April 12, 2018: Alex Wennberg

Despite ranking second in the league in penalty minutes this year, Wilson maintained a clean record with the league during the regular season. In Game 1 of the Capitals’ first round series against the Blue Jackets last month, Wilson found himself at the center of controversy once again after delivering a blindside hit to Columbus forward Alex Wennberg.

“I’m just trying to finish my check there,” Wilson said of the hit after the Capitals’ 4-3 overtime loss. “I’m obviously not trying to take a penalty. That cost us the game. That’s a critical moment. I’ve got to be better and maybe pass up on that hit. We’ve got the lead there, so maybe a big hit is not needed. It’s playoffs. Trying to finish your checks, and unfortunately I took a penalty. They capitalized on a couple of their opportunities there in the third period.”

“The hit on Wennberg for me is a dangerous hit,” Blue Jackets General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen said during a conference call with reporters.

Wilson avoided further discipline from the league, as the Department of Player Safety could not determine whether Wennberg’s head was the main point of contact for Wilson’s hit upon review of the available camera angles. Wennberg would miss the next three games of the series. The Capitals advanced in six games.

Sunday: Brian Dumoulin

Wilson was back in the spotlight after Sunday’s Game 2 win over the Penguins for his second-period hit on Brian Dumoulin that knocked the Penguins’ defenseman out of the game. Wilson’s shoulder appeared to catch Dumoulin in the head as Dumoulin turned to brace himself for a hit by Alex Ovechkin.

“Yeah I saw it, it looked like it was a high hit, but they didn’t see it that way,” Sullivan, the Penguins’ coach, said of the play, which did not result in a penalty.

“I’m at no point trying to target the head at all,” Wilson said. “I’m skating, backchecking, trying to do my job, and unfortunately there’s a collision there. … I think if you watch it at game speed, I don’t even alter my movement at all. I’m just skating straight. The way I look at it: There’s no way I can get his head from that point where I am. He stops and turns and I’m kind of right there as [Ovechkin is] coming in pretty aggressively. It’s a collision. I end up getting blown right out of the water, too. It’s a bit of an unfortunate play that he got hurt.”

A person familiar with the NHL’s supplemental discipline process told The Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan that, in reviewing the play, the league determined that Dumoulin materially changed the position of his head and body immediately before contact and Wilson did not initiate the hit. Dumoulin would return to the Penguins’ lineup for Game 3.

Tuesday: Zach Aston-Reese

“At some point, we would hope that the league might do something,” Sullivan said during his news conference after Wilson’s questionable hit bloodied Aston-Reese and knocked the Penguins forward out of Game 3.

Not surprisingly, Sullivan’s counterpart had a different opinion of the hit, which referees ruled a clean check on the ice.

“Tom is obviously a big body,” Trotz said. “He’s tremendously strong and he hits hard. My first look at the hit, both guys are bracing for it. It was shoulder-to-shoulder and he just blew through him. As I say, there’s very passionate fan bases. We have a very passionate fan base. Pitt does. And you can’t be neutral. That’s why there’s a neutral party that looks at it. We’ve just said all along that whatever the league decides we’re good with. To me, it was a hard hockey hit.”

After reviewing the play, the Department of Player Safety ruled that while Wilson led with his shoulder, he elevated to make Aston-Reese’s head the main point of contact. Aston-Reese’s injury and Wilson’s two suspensions earlier this season led to the three-game suspension, which could keep Wilson off the ice until a potential Game 7. And that could make this the most debated Wilson hit of all.

Read more on the Capitals:

Alex Ovechkin’s late goal gives Capitals 2-1 series lead

For one fan base at least in Capitals-Penguins series, Tom Wilson is a big hit

The Nationals are all-in on the Capitals

Nats troll Pittsburgh fans after controversial no-goal call. Repeatedly.