Kevin Gorman: Capitals beating Penguins … to a pulp
The Washington Capitals want to turn this Stanley Cup second-round series into a street fight, so Tom Wilson threw another second-period sucker punch at the Penguins.
Wilson, of course, threw it with a shoulder to the head. Dirty is what dirty does.
Capitals coach Barry Trotz called it a “hard hockey play,” describing it as a shoulder-to-shoulder hit in which Wilson “just blew through” Zach Aston-Reese.
Even Paul Devorski, the NHL’s on-site officials supervisor, said the officials conferred and called it a “good, clean check.”
If that was a good, clean check, what in the world constitutes a dirty one?
The only way that was a shoulder-to-shoulder hit is if Aston-Reese’s shoulder is located on his face.
After Wilson knocked defenseman Brian Dumoulin out of Game 2, the NHL turned a blind eye. That only invited Wilson to do it again, and this time he left Aston-Reese with a broken jaw and concussion in the Capitals’ 4-3 Game 3 victory over the Penguins Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena.
Aston-Reese left a trail of blood on the ice, and that blood is now on the hands of George Parros.
Parros is the head of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, a hockey oxymoron if there ever was one.
By failing to punish Wilson for the Dumoulin hit, the league not only protected the game’s most penalized player but punished the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.
The Penguins are attempting to follow Mike Sullivan’s edict to not only Just Play but play The Right Way.
My initial reaction to their response was that the Penguins’ play is becoming a lot like Sean Connery’s famous line in The Untouchables: They brought a knife to a gunfight!
The Penguins didn’t go head-hunting for Wilson the way the game would have dictated two decades ago.
Except for an after-the-whistle cross-check of Wilson by defenseman Jamie Oleksiak, the Penguins didn’t lose their composure.
But they gave up a Chandler Stephenson tying goal only 73 seconds later.
After taking a 3-2 lead into the third period, the Penguins gave up two goals, including the winner by Alex Ovechkin with 1:07 left.
No wonder Sullivan spoke about staying focused.
“We lose a guy to a broken jaw that’s 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 do is control what’s within our power — and that’s our focus on the game. And that’s where our focus will be.”
That’s where the Penguins’ focus has to be, if they want to win this series. They can’t afford to sink to the Capitals’ level, especially now that they trail 2-1 in this best-of-seven series.
But the Penguins also can’t afford to have lapses that allow Ovechkin on an odd-man rush with the score tied in the final minutes.
If the Penguins are going to respond to a street fight with skill, they have to be the superior team and resist the temptation to retaliate.
“That’s just what we do. We have to play between the whistles,” Penguins winger Jake Guentzel said. “Sometimes it’s hard, but we’ve got pick up a split against this team. … As the series goes on, you’re going to get more emotion. It’s a battle, and we know it’s going to be a battle. They’re a good team.”
The Capitals aren’t just a good team that delivers good, clean checks. They are something far worse: They are a good team that is beating the Penguins to a pulp and beating them at their own game.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.