Penguins coach on Wilson hit: ‘At some point we hope the league might do something’

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PITTSBURGH — Forget that the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have been two of the best teams in the NHL over the past decade. Forget that they possess the two greatest players of this generation — heck, they are two of the greatest players in the history of the sport — in Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. Forget that the former scored his eighth goal of the playoffs on Tuesday, and that the latter continued what has been to this point a marvelous and dominant postseason performance with his eighth goal of the playoffs to complete a third period comeback and lift the Capitals to a 4-3 win, giving them a 2-1 lead in the series against their long-time nemesis.

This series, no matter who wins it or loses it, is no longer about any of that. It is no longer about the two superstars. It is no longer about Pittsburgh’s quest for a three-peat, or the Capitals’ quest to break through the second-round glass ceiling.

This series is, at least for now, the Tom Wilson series.

For the second time in as many games, and for the third time in these playoffs, another player had to leave a game with an injury — this one a significant injury — as a result of yet another controversial hit from the Capitals’ forward.

This time the unlucky recipient was Penguins rookie forward Zach Aston-Reese — joining Columbus’ Alexander Wennberg in the first round, and Brian Dumoulin, Aston-Reese’s teammate, in this round  — as he was crushed in front of the Capitals’ bench. He remained on the ice for several moments before finally bringing himself to his feet and slowly skating to the locker room. Just as there was on Sunday when Brian Dumoulin had to exit the game, there was no penalty called on the play.

All four officials had a lengthy discussion after the play.

Paul Devorski, the NHL’s on-site supervisor, spoke to a pool reporter after the game to explain what was going on there.

“When we have a big hit like that, and there’s a lot of stuff going on on the ice, our guys come together,” said Devorski. “Obviously both referees didn’t put their arm up, so obviously they didn’t think there was a penalty. So now they bring in the linesmen, who if they think it’s a major penalty, they’ll tell the referees. So they all got together and they said, ‘You know what, we’ve got a good, clean check here.”

Devorski’s brother, Greg Devorski, was one of the linesman in the game. Ryan Gibbons was the other. The referees were Kevin Pollock and Francois St. Laurent.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

After the game an obviously irritated Mike Sullivan revealed the extent of Aston-Reese’s injury, perhaps in an effort to grab the attention of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. After all, the result of the hit often times seems to play a role in what punishment is handed out.

“Well, we just have to stay focussed,” said Sullivan, when asked how the team has to try and maintain its composure in the wake of that play.

“We lose a guy to a broken jaw that is going to require surgery and a concussion because of another high hit to the head. At some point we would hope that the league might do something. But as far as we’re concerned, all we can control is what is within our power and that is our focus on the game. That is where our focus will be.”

Sullivan really didn’t need to call attention to any of it, though.

Not only does the league review everything, but the head of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, former long-time enforcer George Parros, was in attendance in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night. He had a front row seat for all of it. What he and his staff decide to do in the wake of this one will be anybody’s guess, though recent history probably gives us a good indication of where they might go.

Just as was the case with the Wennberg hit in the first-round, and just as their was with the Dumoulin hit on Sunday, and just as there has been with pretty much every controversial, borderline hit that Wilson has delivered in his career, there is again enough gray area here — or unclear views on replay, or anything else that seems to happen when these hits get delivered — to leave everything open to debate.

Mike Sullivan simply called it a high hit.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz also weighed in, not only on the hit, but Wilson in general.

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

When Trotz was asked a follow-up that included the update on Aston-Reese’s status, he declined further comment and said he didn’t care about what Sullivan said.

“I already said what I am going to say about the hit, I don’t think I need to comment anymore, and I really don’t care what Sully said,” said Trotz. “I’m not on their medical team, so I couldn’t tell you. All I can say is I saw the hit, both guys braced for it, shoulder on shoulder, and I don’t know the extent of their player so I don’t think I should comment on it.”

[Related: Wilson enrages Penguins with another controversial hit]

The Penguins were also not happy that Wilson was seen laughing on the bench after the play.

“I get the physical game. I get the physical play. I’ve been on the wrong side of it,” said Penguins defenseman Kris Letang. “At the end of the day I respect what kind of game he plays. But you don’t laugh at somebody getting hurt. You don’t do that.”

Justin Schultz called it “disrespectful.”

The Capitals did not make Wilson available to the media after the game.

Now we play the waiting game on Wednesday to see if Wilson is summoned for a disciplinary hearing.

Given that he was actually penalized during the game for the Wennberg hit and still did not receive a suspension, and did not have a hearing for the Dumoulin hit, it would be awfully hard to believe the league would draw the line here on this.

That means Wilson will probably be back on the ice for Game 4 on Thursday where he will no doubt end up being the center of attention, whether it be before the game when both sides are asked about him or his play, or something he does during the game.

Sure, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby might score some more goals.

Might even be a great game with another fantastic finish.

But make no mistake, this is now the Tom Wilson series.

UPDATE: Wilson will have a DoPS hearing on Wednesday.

Related: On Tom Wilson, player safety, and avoiding suspensions

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Ron Francis speaks about handling of Peters situation while Hurricanes GM

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NHL Seattle general manager Ron Francis has responded to how physical abuse accusations against former Carolina Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters were handled when he was the team’s GM.

Speaking with The Seattle Times this week, Francis said he addressed the issue with Peters and defended giving him a two-year extension after the fact.

“We looked where the team was and how it was playing,” Francis said. “It was moving in the right direction. We’d made a huge increase from where it was the year before to where we were that year. And quite honestly, we looked at that (physical-abuse) situation, we addressed it and we felt it was behind him.”

“I think you deal with it the best you can with the situation you have at the time,” Francis said. “I think within the last week there have been some changes the league has made. I think that’s positive moving forward. I don’t claim to be perfect. I make mistakes. I try to learn every day from the people I talk with in situations. That’s what I try to do and take that knowledge moving forward. And hopefully you’re never in that situation again.”

Last month, after Peters was accused to uttering racial slurs at Akim Aliu, whom he coached in the American Hockey League, former Hurricanes defenseman Michal Jordan said that Peters kicked him in the back and punched another player during a game. The allegations for were confirmed by current head coach Rod Brind’Amour, who was an assistant under Peters.

Former Hurricanes majority owner Peter Karmanos told The Seattle Times that he would have fired Francis “in a nanosecond” had he been made aware of the allegations against Peters, even though Francis, who added there was a full vetting process during the hiring process, said he informed management of the situation.

Peters resigned as Calgary Flames head coach days after the allegations went public. In a statement that week Francis acknowledged he was made aware of the incidents and that he “took immediate action to address the matter and briefed ownership.” He did not reveal what he did to correct the matter in either his statement or in the interview with the Times’ Geoff Baker.

“When you look back, there were some things we did well and certain things we need to improve on to get better,” he said. “That’s part of the learning process, I think.”

The NHL revealed a four-point plan this week at the Board of Governors that will provide a guideline for teams in handling abuse allegations and other inappropriate conduct.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Wild’s Spurgeon 10 seasons into size-defying career

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The defining moment of Jared Spurgeon‘s hockey career came when he was just 13: His peewee coach in Edmonton moved him from forward to defenseman.

There was no going back for Spurgeon, even though he hasn’t grown much bigger since then. Minnesota’s 5-foot-9, 167-pound stalwart on the blue line has been defying size stereotypes ever since.

”I just fell in love with the position,” Spurgeon said.

The Wild have felt the same way about him over the last 10 seasons. The 30-year-old Spurgeon, who set career highs in games (82), goals (14), assists (29), shots (152) and hits (91) during the 2019-19 season, signed a seven-year, $53 million contract extension at the beginning of training camp.

Not bad for a sixth-round pick the New York Islanders ultimately declined to sign, paving the way for a tryout with the Wild two years after he was drafted.

”Probably the best in the NHL at breaking the puck out. Unbelievable on his edges. One of the smartest players in the game,” said Buffalo defenseman Marco Scandella, who played with Spurgeon in Minnesota for seven seasons. ”He’s got a lot of things in his toolbox, and he doesn’t even need the size.”

Spurgeon, who is halfway through an expected two-week absence for a hand injury sustained while blocking a shot, has ranked over the last four years in the top 20 among NHL defensemen in goals, power play goals, blocked shots and time on ice.

”That’s one of those players that you’re just like, ‘How?’ ” Scandella said. ”You just have to watch him over a season. Play with him, and you understand how good he is.”

The ability to skate – and pass – quickly will always be critical for a player with Spurgeon’s frame. Part of that is being fast enough to elude opponents, but it also means maximizing his power by maintaining leverage and balance for the moments when he does initiate or absorb contact.

”You don’t need to be huge and massive to be strong on your skates,” said St. Louis center Ryan O'Reilly, who faces Spurgeon frequently as a Central Division rival. ”You go in and forecheck, and he is so strong. It’s like going against a big guy.”

Awareness is just as important as fearlessness to succeed as a 5-foot-9 player, of course.

Spurgeon simply doesn’t get pushed around much because he’s rarely caught off guard by a big hit. The advantage of vision from the blue line, being able to see the plays develop in front of him, was one of the benefits that immediately drew Spurgeon to defense. He tried to emulate players who came before him like Brian Rafalski and Dan Boyle, sub-6-foot defensemen who were offensive threats but never a liability in their own zone.

”The emphasis of moving the puck and getting up ice and being able to contribute offensively as well is a whole lot different than it used to be, where maybe you had one of those guys before and a bunch of a big, mean guys,” Spurgeon said. ”But I think now the game is so fast that I think it gives the ability for smaller guys to play.”

According to Sportradar data, there are 41 defensemen who have appeared in at least one NHL game this season and are listed at 5-foot-11 or shorter. That number drops to 18 at 5-foot-10 or less and to six at 5-foot-9 and under.

In the 2005-06 season after the lockout, which brought rule changes to encourage more free-flowing action in the neutral zone and increase goal scoring, there were only 29 defensemen at 5-foot-11 or shorter, 11 at 5-foot-10 or less, and three at 5-foot-9 and under. Twenty years ago, there were fewer still: 22 players at 5-foot-11 or shorter, eight at 5-foot-10 or less, and just one at 5-foot-9 and under.

The Wild have two 5-foot-9 blue-liners with Spurgeon and Brad Hunt. Boston’s Torey Krug is another standout in the club. Those lanky veterans around the league like St. Louis’ Colton Parayko (6-foot-6), Carolina’s Dougie Hamilton (6-foot-6) and Boston’s Zdeno Chara (6-foot-9) have obvious advantages with reach and strength, but there’s plenty more to sound defense than being able to poke a stick at a puck.

”We have the quickness and the first two or three strides in order to close plays so that they don’t get the possession of the puck and move on. I think it’s just using our skating abilities,” Krug said. ”I think it’s been a long time coming, especially with the real changes in the way the game is trending. It’s funny, years ago to have one of those guys on your team, people kind of scoffed at that. Now we’ve got two and sometimes three in the lineup at once, and it creates really mobile back end.”

STREAKING

Pittsburgh goalie Tristan Jarry had a franchise-record scoreless run of 177:15 that ended during a 4-1 loss to Montreal on Tuesday, just the second defeat in eight starts for the backup to Matt Murray. Jarry stopped 82 consecutive shots during the streak, the longest in the league this season.

SLUMPING

The Detroit Red Wings are sliding toward a four-year absence from the playoffs after the end of their famous 25-season streak of making it. The Red Wings are on a 12-game winless streak, going 0-10-2 since Nov. 12, and have the worst record in the NHL at 7-22-3. They’ve dropped 10 straight games in regulation by a 47-16 margin.

Our Line Starts podcast: Montgomery’s firing; drafting the All-Decade Team

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Kathryn Tappen, Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp discuss the surprise firing of Stars coach Jim Montgomery. The guys also give their takes on Gary Bettman’s four-point plan to handle abuse. Pierre McGuire sits down with Sabres coach Ralph Krueger to talk about his time in Europe and his path from the Premier League back to the NHL. Plus, Jones and Sharp reveal their top defensemen and goalies of the decade. Do you agree with them?

Start-0:45 Intros
0:45-7:25 Reaction to Dallas firing Jim Montgomery
7:25-14:10 Gary Bettman and the NHL’s 4-point plan
14:10-32:50 Pierre interviews Sabres coach Ralph Krueger
36:05-End The guys begin to draft their All-Decade Team

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

PHT Morning Skate: Bruins’ stars workload; Shero’s hot seat

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• “Akim Aliu’s story of enduring racism inside hockey includes an incident in which a minor-league team staffer dressed up as him in blackface.” [Wall Street Journal]

• “It feels like this examination and accounting of hockey’s ugly underbelly is in its infancy, as if a light has shined on the game’s conscience for the first time in decades, with the holder of the flashlight realizing just how much cleansing there is to do.” [TSN]

• The Bruins stars are carrying a heavy offensive load. [RotoWorld]

• What players need to avoid the regression monster and which ones are ready to bounce back? [ESPN]

• The name, colors and logo of Seattle’s NHL expansion team could be revealed in February or March. [NHL.com]

• How hot is Ray Shero’s seat now becoming in New Jersey? [All About the Jersey]

• Well-travelled Eric Comrie looking to make mark with Red Wings. [Sun Media]

• Speaking of hot seats, how much longer does Jeff Blashill have in Detroit? [Freep]

• Ranking the all-time jersey designs of the Vancouver Canucks. [Hockey by Design]

• Could the Canadians be potential trade partners with the Blackhawks? [NBC Sports Chicago]

• A look at the best player at every age in the NHL. [Yardbarker]

• Finally, here’s Brett Ritchie with the quote of the season:

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.