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Kevin Gorman: Latest Penguins injury more proof NHL must punish head shots | TribLIVE.com
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Kevin Gorman: Latest Penguins injury more proof NHL must punish head shots

Tribune-Review
| Sunday, April 29, 2018 9:45 p.m
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Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin lays on the ice after taking a hit to the head against the Capitals during the second period April 29, 2018, in Washington,

WASHINGTON — The Penguins have to be dumbfounded with how they lost Brian Dumoulin against the Washington Capitals, which is exactly how you would expect it.

It wasn’t just a hit to the head from Tom Wilson in the Capitals’ 4-1 victory Sunday, but a slap to the face of the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.

As Dumoulin braced for a head-on collision with Capitals star Alex Ovechkin, Wilson came from behind and hit the defenseman’s head at 4 minutes, 26 seconds of the second period.

It wasn’t just a dirty hit but the kind the NHL should have addressed after Sidney Crosby was concussed on a cross-check in this second-round series last year.

“The league is fair. They look at everything,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who called the hit on Crosby a hockey play. “This was this year, and that was last year.”

That’s garbage, and so is the NHL if it doesn’t take any action. Not only is Wilson the league’s most penalized player over the past five years — his 806 penalty minutes are 85 more than the next player — but his explanation alone for the hit deserves a fine.

Wilson said he was just doing his job on the back-check and wasn’t targeting Dumoulin’s head.

“I’m at no point trying to target the head at all,” Wilson told the Washington Post about the collision. “I’ve watched it briefly, and I don’t realize what I can really do any different.

“At the last second, I see ‘Ovi’ coming in and you can see me bracing, too, as well, and I end up getting kind of taken out as well.

“It wasn’t a body check to the head. I think I graze his head as I’m skating by him and as he’s getting hit by Ovi. If you watch it from multiple angles, you don’t see me like lunge into his head or anything.”

Actually, that’s exactly what you see. Wilson went so far as to raise his left shoulder, grazing Dumoulin’s head the way a hammer grazes a nail.

“We all know who he is and what he does on the ice,” said Penguins defenseman Kris Letang, Dumoulin’s partner. “Like, we expect that.”

Except for Dumoulin, who didn’t see it coming. He lifted his gloves to his helmet as he fell to the ice, eventually skating off but never returning.

That was a bad break for the Penguins, who were trailing 2-0. Dumoulin was averaging 22:42 of ice time in the playoffs, second only to Letang, and often draws the opponents’ top line. Dumoulin also was the Penguins’ fifth-leading scorer, with six points, and a key to their penalty-kill unit.

“Anytime you go down to five ‘D,’ it’s tough, but especially when losing ‘Dumo,’ ” Penguins defenseman Justin Schultz said. “He’s such an important piece to our back end. He plays against the other team’s top lines all the time. He plays hard minutes. It’s tough losing him.

“Hopefully, he’s all right.”

Don’t hold your breath holding out hope. This isn’t about whether Wilson is right or wrong, whether his hit was intentional or accidental. It’s about the NHL’s need to start treating head shots the way it does high sticking and fighting: with punishment.

“He made contact with his head. That was the first point of contact,” Crosby said of Wilson. “Given his history and things like that, I’m sure they’ll take a good look at it.”

The NHL also took a good look at Crosby’s wraparound that Patric Hornqvist tapped in — still photos show the puck behind the goal line — and let the call on the ice stand.

The Penguins also expected the league to look at Ovechkin and Matt Niskanen’s one-two shot on Crosby in Game 3 last season. The NHL did nothing: No penalty. No fines. No suspensions.

That Mike Sullivan refuses to share his thoughts about the officiating or league disciplinary matters is part of the problem. The Penguins coach finds no point in criticizing things he can’t control but is failing to use his platform to draw national attention to the NHL’s need to protect its players, whether they are superstars or not.

The Penguins lost Dumoulin for nearly two-thirds of one game and possibly more if the injury is as serious as it appeared.

That shouldn’t be summarily dismissed as playoff hockey.

“It’s tough. He’s one of our best defensemen,” Sullivan said. “When you lose a guy that early in the game, you’ve got to find ways to make up for the contribution that he makes. He’s an important player for us, so it presents a big challenge for the rest of the defensemen.”

It presents a bigger challenge for the NHL, which needs to take a long look at everything to ensure that the “hockey play” head shots that injured Crosby last year and Dumoulin this year won’t happen again next year.

The NHL shouldn’t turn a blind eye to a blindside hit to the head during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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