Capitals' Tom Wilson suspended 3 games for hit on Penguins' Zach Aston-Reese
The Penguins insisted it wasn't something at the top of their mind. The Capitals remained steadfast that it wasn't going to affect their preparation moving forward.
After a long day of waiting, both teams finally got to know what retribution the league decreed upon Tom Wilson for his latest hit the head of a Penguins player.
Wilson will serve a three-game suspension for his hit on Zach Aston-Reese during Tuesday's Game 3, the NHL Department of Player Safety announced Wednesday night.
In a nearly five-minute video explaining the decision, the department of player safety ruled the head was the main point of contact for the hit and that the hit was avoidable.
The video also discredited one camera angle that seemed to show Aston-Reese's shoulder as the main point of contact, citing the initial snap of the Penguins rookie's head and his medical diagnosis as evidence.
The video absolved Aston-Reese of any culpability, noting he did not change his position to make head contact unavoidable. It also labeled Wilson a repeat offender.
Washington's Tom Wilson suspended three games for an illegal check to the head on Pittsburgh's Zach Aston-Reese. https://t.co/rrZ8Hp3XkE— NHL Player Safety (@NHLPlayerSafety) May 2, 2018
The incident left Aston-Reese with a broken jaw and a concussion, coach Mike Sullivan said after the game, a 4-3 win that gave the Capitals a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. Neither Aston-Reese nor Wilson will play in Game 4 Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena.
Sullivan and Penguins players were available to the media before the suspension was announced — but after the department of player safety announced the hearing via a tweet, referring to the hit as "an illegal check to the head."
Washington's Tom Wilson will have a hearing today for an illegal check to the head on Pittsburgh's Zach Aston-Reese.— NHL Player Safety (@NHLPlayerSafety) May 2, 2018
The Penguins were reluctant to concede they were following the league and its decision-making in regards to how to (if at all) discipline Wilson.
"I don't think our team even focuses on it quite honestly," Sullivan said. "We are focused on playing hockey; that's the most important aspect of the game. We are going to do our job, and that's control what we can."
The questions Penguins players faced from media following their Wednesday practice were eerily similar to the storylines they were addressing in that same locker room following Monday's practice: their reactions to a hit on one of their teammates by Wilson, and whether they expected or agreed with league discipline (or lack thereof) for him.
Wilson knocked defenseman Brian Dumoulin out of the Capitals' Game 2 victory Sunday with a second-period hit that landed Dumoulin in the NHL's concussion protocol. Dumoulin returned for Game 3.
The Tom Wilson check to the head that sent Dumoulin to the room pic.twitter.com/cbRVMLBURo— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) April 29, 2018
Like the hit on Aston-Reese, the hit on Dumoulin was not assessed a penalty on the ice. But unlike after the Aston-Reese incident, Wilson did not face a hearing with the league for the first check.
After each hit — publicly, at least — the Penguins en masse resisted any urge to fan the flames of the story or exacerbate the tension between the teams that has been ratcheting up during this series between longtime rivals.
"The league hired people to do that job (disciplining players)," defenseman Kris Letang said. "We are just out there to play hockey and try to win games. At the end of the day, the safety part is out of our hands and hopefully they hire the right people to make those decisions and keep the players safe."
Wilson was suspended twice during this past preseason because of in-game incidents, being forced to sit out two preseason games and the first four games of the regular season. He also was fined for a knee-on-knee hit in the 2016 playoffs.
Capitals coach Barry Trotz has repeatedly defended his top-line wing in recent days, both for his acts in the hits on Dumoulin and Aston-Reese and for his overall character.
"He always tries to work on the part of the game that the league still allows him to be what he is, but be within the confines of all the rules," Trotz said Wednesday. "So he is working hard… and talking with the people in the league so he keeps trying to adjust and grow as a player."
Sullivan changed his tone — or perhaps decided he had already done enough to get the league's attention — in the 13 hours or so between speaking late Tuesday night and after an optional practice Wednesday.
After the game of Wilson's hit, Sullivan said, "It's a high hit. What else can I say? It's a high hit." He also added: "At some point we would hope that the league might do something."
On Tuesday, though, Sullivan was squarely back into the "Just play" coachspeak that has been his trademark when asked about ancillary issues. Asked if he believed Wilson should be suspended, Sullivan said, "It doesn't matter what I think.
"As I said, we are not focused on that; we are trying to focus our attention on our game and how we can improve and put ourselves in the best opportunity and give ourselves the best chance to win games. And that's where our focus is."
Sullivan's captain followed suit.
"It's my job to play. Let everyone else whose job it is to worry about those hits and take care of that," Sidney Crosby said. "I am focused on playing."
As far as Crosby would go in being outwardly critical of the Wilson incident with Aston-Reese was to say, "Obviously, it wasn't a great hit."
"It's one guy's actions, and (the NHL) has to address it. That's what it comes down to. You can talk about it all you want and you can dissect it all you want, but it doesn't need to be that way if it's handled properly."