Rob Rossi: Tom Wilson’s rubbish hits overshadowing Capitals’ poise |

Rob Rossi: Tom Wilson’s rubbish hits overshadowing Capitals’ poise

Washington Capitals' Tom Wilson (43) falls over the boards after colliding with Pittsburgh Penguins' Zach Aston-Reese (46) during the second period in Game 3 of an NHL second-round hockey playoff series in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, May 1, 2018. Aston-Reese suffered a broken jaw and will miss the rest of the playoffs. The Capitals won 4-3. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Penguins' Brian Dumoulin and Tom Wilson collide during their game against the Capitals inside of PPG Paints Arena on May 1, 2018.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Capitals' Tom Wilson throws his body at the Penguins' Chad Ruhwedel in the first period during Game 3 on Tuesday.

Tom Wilson has made Games 1, 2 and 3 of this latest second-round showdown between the Capitals and Penguins all about him.

He shouldn’t get the chance in Game 4. The guess here is he will, though.

The NHL’s Player Safety staff is not strongly positioned to suspend Wilson for his nasty knockout of the Penguins’ Zach Aston-Reese on Tuesday night. Wilson was not penalized for the hit, the nature of which brought expected differing opinions from the Penguins and Capitals.

There is no doubt on which side of the line the NHL fell.

Former referee Paul Devorski, at PPG Paints Arena to supervise Game 3 for the league, said that a lengthy huddle by the on-ice referees and officials resulted in that group deciding, “You know what? We’ve got a good, clean check here.”

Actually, what we’ve got here is a failure to grasp what year we’re in.

Uh, guys … it’s 2018.

It might be the year the Capitals finally best the Penguins. Their 4-3 win Tuesday night pointed the Capitals in that unexpected direction.

It also might be the year remembered for the NHL taking a regrettable backward step when it comes to protecting players from unnecessary brain injuries.

Until the past couple of games between the Capitals and Penguins, everybody associated with the NHL at least attempted to pretend hitting players’ heads was, well, a bad look for the league. So how is the league going to look if Wilson, who failed to eliminate the Penguins’ Brian Dumoulin in Game 2 but in Game 3 likely put down Aston-Reese — broken jaws and concussions tend to shorten postseasons for players — freely finds his next victim in Game 4 on Thursday night?

This league doesn’t care how it looks.

If a cancelled season, a couple of shortened seasons and enough dead-puck seasons to turn off Gordie Howe’s ghost failed to smarten hockey fans to the fact the NHL does not buy into perception being reality, why would the latest or next headhunting expedition by Wilson change anything?

At this point, after 16 often cringe-worthy postseason contests between the Capitals and Penguins over these past three springs, the NHL should just as well place these clubs in a garbage compactor and abandon any pretense that these are “hockey plays” we’re witnessing.

They’re not.

And the guess here is that somewhere, some smart lawyer is going to show a day’s worth of hits like the ones consistently delivered by the Wilsons of this world to a jury tasked with trying to decide if the NHL ever cared about players’ safety.

To Gary Bettman, as sharp a legal mind as has existed amongst legendary commissioners of professional sporting leagues, the question is: “Do you?” If the answer is “yes,” Bettman should at least instruct on-ice officials to penalize Wilson for his dangerous, damaging high hits. If the answer is “yes,” Bettman should authorize his player safety department head, George Parros, to suspend Wilson for at least Game 4.

Why (especially if Wilson has yet to sit in the sin bin for skull-cracking a couple of Penguins)?

Easiest answer Bettman could give is the NHL does not need to give lawyers any more ammunition in future legal wars over brain damage. But “because I said so” also would do from Bettman.

Wilson had no answers for questions about his assault on Aston-Reese. The Capitals would not make him available to the media after Game 3.

That decision was just as well. It is not as though Wilson could say anything that would erase the image of him laughing on the Capitals bench after the hit on Aston-Reese.

There are a lot of bad parts about what has happened in this best-of-seven series, which the Capitals lead 2-1. One of the worst is Wilson’s hits overshadowing what might be the moment for which Capitals fans have been forever awaiting.

For the first time in their professional careers, Alex Ovechkin is poised to get over on Sidney Crosby.

His team, if not better, is playing smarter than the Penguins. The Capitals also are acquitting themselves better defensively and between the pipes, and they are showing themselves much more poised and prepared to play a full 60 minutes.

Only a third-period scoring barrage by the Penguins’ indisputably devastating top line in the third period of Game 1 has prevented the Capitals from being ahead 3-0.

But who cares about the hockey when the Capitals and Penguins play it in the playoffs? We’ve got brains to scramble.

And there will be more scrambling, because this league allows brains to be treated like eggs when the stakes are highest.

Tom Wilson is a really good hockey player who consistently has shown no respect for his peers, his sport or these times. He has what it takes to be the NHL’s next John LeClair.

Instead, he is channeling George Parros the player.

Parros the NHL executive should take Wilson out of Game 4 and put the focus of this series where it should be: the Capitals taking it to the Penguins.

Rob Rossi is a freelance columninst.

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