PITTSBURGH — Hockey moves so fast, especially come springtime, that it’s often hard to discern the important elements that transpire in slices of a second. But here was Marcus Johansson of the Washington Capitals, skating with the puck Monday night. And then the puck left Johansson’s stick. And here came Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins anyway, bearing down on the defenseless Johansson in less time than it takes to read this sentence.
Before Monday’s Game 3 at Consol Energy Center, this second-round playoff series between franchises that have harbored distaste for each other for decades had already been colored by one large, late hit. The Capitals skated in the third game without veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik, who was suspended for three games by the NHL for a late blow to the head of Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta in Game 2.
Orpik’s absence wasn’t the primary reason for the 3-2 loss that put the Capitals down two games to one in the series. It did, however, give them reason to point to Letang, who laid out Johansson in the first period Monday — and expect the league to react.
“He was hit in the head,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “Left his feet. Brooks Orpik got three games. We’ll see what this is.”
The play in question — and by “in question,” we mean that was surely being examined by the NHL into the wee hours of Tuesday morning — came with less than five minutes remaining in the first period. Johansson carried the puck into the Pittsburgh zone, splitting two defenders. Even as Johansson dumped the puck off to his left, Letang awaited.
“I didn’t see him coming,” Johansson said afterward.
Letang, though, had his eyes squarely on Johansson.
“I saw him coming full speed, and I tried to step up in the middle,” Letang said. “But things happen fast. I can’t tell you right now. It was just a step up to hit him. Not intentional.”
Intentional or not, Letang drove his left shoulder up and under Johansson’s head, leaving his feet for a hair — a key in evaluating whether hits are dirty or clean. Johansson collapsed to the ice. Letang was whistled for a two-minute minor for interference.
“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.”
Does it look as bad, though, as Orpik’s hit on Maatta — who was unable to dress for Game 3? And will the NHL take similar action? Johansson went immediately to the dressing room after the hit, and he said he underwent the NHL’s concussion protocol and was cleared. He was on the bench to start the second period and played regularly, and effectively, thereafter.
Still, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said afterward he was struck by two elements of the play: the fact that Johansson had played the puck to the wing well before the hit, and what Trotz felt was a re-route by Letang into Johansson.
“He’s vulnerable,” Trotz said. “Let the league handle it. I’d just get myself in trouble if I say anything more.”
There is, though, the inevitable comparison to Orpik’s situation — and a suspension that helped shape the series. So please, say more.
“We’ll let the league handle it, as I said,” Trotz said. “But they set a little bit of a standard, so we’ll see.”
The NHL suspended Orpik on Sunday evening, and even as Trotz expressed displeasure — even taking a shot at the Penguins and the league earlier Monday, saying, “I’m disappointed, but I’m not surprised based on who we’re playing and all of that” — Orpik said he thought the discipline was “fair.”
“It was a bad hit,” Orpik, who played 10 years in Pittsburgh, said earlier Monday. “I intended for it to be a hard hit, but definitely not at his head. I don’t think there’s anything that you can argue that it was definitely late. I think that was pretty black and white, and I said that during my hearing [Sunday].”
What Letang will say during a hearing, should he have one, would be determined Tuesday, the off day before Game 4. And the NHL will have another chance to re-shape the series.
“We’ll see how the league responds,” Capitals star Alex Ovechkin said. “If it’s fair, maybe he gets three games, or something. I don’t know. It’s not my call — or our call.”