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