If the Penguins are hoping that what we will call “the Tom Wilson situation” would bring about further change in how the NHL deals with hits to the head, or if they are concerned about the message the controversy might send about the league or the game, they aren’t saying.
Following Wednesday’s optional practice, and before Wilson received a three-game suspension from the NHL for a hit Tuesday in Game 3 that left rookie winger Zach Aston-Reese with a broken jaw and concussion, Pittsburgh Hockey Now thought the Penguins might at least talk about the way the Wilson situation has shifted the focus away from a marquee series packed with star players and rich history.
A game before he hit Aston-Reese, Wilson knocked defenseman Brian Dumoulin out of Game 2 with a hit that looked to be to the head. He was not penalized in-game either time, nor did he have a hearing with the NHL for the Dumoulin hit.
But the idea that those events have usurped the focus was a no go in the locker room.
In fact, a couple of the players turned the tables on the question.
“I don’t know. We’re not really putting much importance on any of that,” goaltender Matt Murray said. “That’s all you guys doing that. We’re just playing hockey. You just don’t want to see guys getting hurt. But that’s out of our hands. We’re just playing hockey.”
It doesn’t seem a stretch to suggest that reporters are reacting to the buzz over the Wilson situation, rather than creating it. Fans are jamming the comments section of reporters’ online stories and the phone lines of sports talk shows.
But the Penguins are standing firm. That includes team captain Sidney Crosby, who also disputed the idea that the focus of the series at the moment revolves more around Wilson than it does around anything else going on in the series.
“I think you’re reading into it too much,” he said. “I mean, it’s one guy’s actions, and they have to address it. That’s what it comes down to. You can talk about it all you want, dissect it all you want, but it doesn’t need to be that way if handled properly.”
Was Crosby making a subtle editorial comment with that last phrase about it being handled properly? Only he knows.
There might have been a similar message embedded in defenseman Kris Letang’s comments Wednesday.
“It’s out of my hands. There’s nothing I can do or say. It’s up to them to make a decision,” Letang said when asked what punishment Wilson deserved.
“The league hires people do that job. We’re just out there to play hockey, try to win games. …Hopefully, they hired the right people to make those decisions and keep the players safe.”
Was Letang questioning the NHL for making former enforcer (and Ivy League graduate) George Parros the head of the Department of Player Safety? Was he questioning the motives and care factor of commissioner Gary Bettman and other top front office executives? We don’t know.
Blocking Out Wilson?
It’s entirely possible the Penguins’ 2-1 deficit in the series persuaded them to block out the Wilson situation – beyond concern for Aston-Reese, of course.
They seemed a little more open in their disgust after Game 3 Tuesday night.
Crosby could not hide a tone of resignation when asked about Wilson’s hit on Aston-Reese. “I don’t really have anything to say,” he said. “What’s there to say anymore.”
Coach Mike Sullivan broke with his traditional coach-speak when he outlined Aston-Reese’s injuries and pleaded through pursed lips, “At some point we would hope that the league might do something. ”
The more conservative version of Sullivan returned some 14 or 15 hours later.
“I don’t think our team even focuses on it, quiet honestly,” he said after practice. “We’re focused on playing hockey. That’s the most important aspect of the game. We’re going to do our job, and that’s (to) control what we can.”
Pressed on whether Wilson should be suspended, he shot back, “It doesn’t matter what I think. And as I said, we’re not focused on that.”
The Capitals, not surprisingly, seemed to agree on a theory that Wilson’s hit was shoulder-on-shoulder, including coach Barry Trotz.
After Washington’s optional practice Wednesday, Trotz was ready to move on.
“We’ll see what the league says and then we’ll react off of it,” he said before the NHL’s decision came down. “We’re going to prepare like we always do … Our focus is on to the next game.”
Wilson has not spoken publicly since the hit on Aston-Reese. Reporters in the Capitals locker room after Game 3 requested an interview with him when he was not at his stall.
Their request was declined like a bad credit card.