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Penguins

Mark Madden: NHL continues to turn blind eye to player safety

| Monday, April 30, 2018, 6:21 p.m.
Washington's Tom Wilson collides with the Penguins' Phil Kessel during the first period in Game 2 on Sunday.
Washington's Tom Wilson collides with the Penguins' Phil Kessel during the first period in Game 2 on Sunday.

In the 2016 playoff series between the Penguins and Washington, the Capitals' Brooks Orpik targeted the head of Olli Maatta.

When the teams met again in the 2017 postseason, Washington's Matt Niskanen cross-checked Sidney Crosby in the melon.

This past Sunday, the Capitals' Tom Wilson targeted the cranium Brian Dumoulin.

The NHL seems to consider these incidents to be “hockey plays.”

They aren't.

Nor are they coincidental.

Is Capitals coach Barry Trotz telling his players to injure Penguins?

Or is it an unspoken understanding?

Or are the frustrated Capitals trying to win a war of attrition because they haven't beaten the Penguins in a playoff series during the Alex Ovechkin era? Hang that 0-for-3 up there among the pretend banners.

Whatever might be going on stinks. But when an ex-goon who didn't possess an ounce of hockey talent is in charge of the NHL's Department of Player Safety, hockey is that much more likely to turn to excrement.

Ken Dryden's opinion should mean more than that of George Parros, the thug who inexplicably got an office job with the NHL. Dryden is a Hall-of-Famer, a six-time Stanley Cup champion, a Cornell University graduate and a lawyer. He might be the greatest goaltender of all time.

Dryden thinks every shot to the head should be disciplined, whether intentional or accidental. As Dryden said, “The brain doesn't distinguish. The damage is the same.”

But Wilson didn't even get a minor penalty for his hit on Dumoulin, let alone a suspension. Wilson did almost exactly the same thing to Columbus' Alexander Wennberg in Washington's first-round series. He got a minor but no suspension. Wennberg missed three games.

There's little the Penguins can do.

Retaliating would be counter-productive. That's not the Penguins' style. If enforcer Ryan Reaves was still a Penguin, that wouldn't deter Wilson. Injuring opponents is his job. The NHL could regulate but doesn't want to.

The NHL has a New York lawyer as its front man: commissioner Gary Bettman. But it's still beholden to that old-time Canadian mentality that dictates toughness should be as important as skill, and that a price should be paid in blood and brain cells, especially in the playoffs.

That's exactly what the NHL shouldn't want. Better to avoid bad PR and future jurisprudence. But the “N” stands for Neanderthal, not National.

Wilson is a galling example of the NHL's laissez-faire attitude toward player safety. Wilson never has sold one ticket or induced anyone to turn on a TV. But the NHL protects players like him at the expense of those who do.

Wilson has made a career out of playing cheap but has been suspended only twice during his five NHL seasons. One of those times, Wilson was banned for two preseason games. That might be the most laughable punishment ever.

The NHL doesn't have many pure meatheads left. Wilson is one of a dying breed that isn't dying fast enough. (That's meant figuratively, disciples of faux outrage.) He had a fluky output of 14 goals this season because he's playing on Ovechkin's line. That falsely inflates Wilson's credibility.

Wilson didn't even get a disciplinary hearing for his hit on Dumoulin. The NHL's Department of Player Safety reportedly feels Dumoulin moved his head at the last minute. If that's true, Wilson certainly kept his shoulder and elbow aligned with the path of Dumoulin's noggin.

The only way the Penguins can stay within their game and still avenge the Capitals' shenanigans is to win the series.

Despite the body count, the Penguins are in decent position to do just that after splitting the first two games at Washington. The Penguins had the NHL's best home-ice record during the regular season and return to PPG Paints Arena for the next two games.

All of the Penguins' injured players practiced Monday. All are game-time decisions for Tuesday. It seems likely some return sooner, not later.

Playing better in the first minute of periods would help the Penguins.

The Penguins have allowed goals within the first 128 seconds of a period four times out of a possible six during this series. That includes conceding just 17 seconds into Game 1 and 86 seconds into Game 2.

Such goals provide a big psychological lift to the teams scoring them. For those victimized, it's a bummer. The Penguins can't keep starting out flat.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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