It cost the Washington Capitals forward the first 16 games of the season. In his ninth contest back in the lineup, a hit in the second period of Friday night’s game against the New Jersey Devils, which the Capitals won, 6-3, thanks to Nicklas Backstrom’s hat trick, invited more scrutiny — and another early exit for Wilson.
With 2:21 left until intermission, Wilson hit Devils forward Brett Seney, who had his back turned, as he skated by him. Wilson was assessed a match penalty for an illegal check to the head, though the shoulder appeared to be the main point of contact.
Seney went back to the locker room for evaluation, and he returned for the start of the third period. But even if Wilson did not make contact with Seney’s head, the hit was unnecessary — Seney didn’t have the puck — and arguably a show of poor judgment for a player who’s a repeat offender and has vowed to stay out of the Department of Player Safety’s crosshairs. His four suspensions in 105 games were considered an “unprecedented frequency,” and a match penalty means he’s automatically suspended for the next game, pending a review from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. In cases where there’s not supplemental discipline from the league, players are typically cleared to play right away.
The Capitals, however, argued that the penalty was undeserved and a result of Wilson’s reputation. Wilson was not made available for comment.
“I’m having a really tough time with this one because he isn’t even intending to make a hit,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “It’s incidental contact, and he is following his defenseman down the wall, the player backs into him, he tries to get out of the way of the player, makes himself as small as possible, and there’s incidental contact. He’s not even attempting to make a hit, and we get a five-minute penalty that could’ve cost us the game. This guy is doing everything he can to try to play the right way, and this is how things are happening. It’s a tough situation. . . .
“I’m still trying to see how it’s a penalty. I think any other player, I don’t know if — it’s maybe an interference call. Maybe.”
The Department of Player Safety also saw the collision as interference rather than an illegal check to the head, according to a person familiar with the situation. Historically, suspensions for interference involve substantial head contact, and since there was none in this case, it’s unlikely the check will warrant a hearing. And while Wilson might have been trying to get out of the way of Seney, as Reirden argued, a person in the NHL said he could have made it more obvious.
“It was more kind of back of my shoulder,” Seney said. “I don’t know if he was intending to do it or what. I haven’t had the chance to look at it yet.”
Wilson had been smiling to start the second period. On a New Jersey power play, Devils goaltender Keith Kinkaid misplayed the puck behind the net, and Wilson scooped up the turnover, scoring on a scrambling Kinkaid just eight seconds into the frame to lift Washington to 2-0 lead. He has been an offensive force since his return to the lineup, scoring seven goals with six assists in his first nine games back. Despite significant injuries, Washington was 7-1-0 with Wilson in the lineup entering Friday’s game.
It was his importance to the team that Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan stressed when he and Wilson discussed what hits he would have to avoid in the future.
“It’s those impact hits through the middle of the ice when he’s tracking back,” MacLellan said previously. “He just can’t do them. Whether we think the head is the main point of contact or the body has altered the position of things — I mean, technically, we can argue some of these things — some of the hits he’s going to have to learn to use less force on. He’s going to have to let up a little bit. He can still finish the check but not as hard as he can because force creates a little doubt in how they’re evaluating.”
Wilson’s hit overshadowed another impressive outing from the Capitals, who won their seventh straight. The win reversed a trend that had seen the Capitals scored upon first in all but one of those victories. And though the Capitals were winning, it remained a point of small frustration in the locker room.
Against the Devils, they started strong with Backstrom’s goal 3:51 into the game, and they eventually pulled away in the third, when Backstrom scored his second of the game on a five-on-three power play. He capped off the hat trick with an empty-netter in the final minute.
After the game, Reirden praised his team for keeping its cool and killing off Wilson’s five-minute major at a point when it was still a one-goal game. Wilson almost certainly will be in the lineup next game, and if Friday’s game proved anything definitively, it’s that his actions on the ice are still very much open to scrutiny.
“I’m in the position that I’m not able to make those hits anymore,” Wilson said last week. “I’m under the microscope, there’s a spotlight, and I’ve got to be careful. That’s reality.”