PITTSBURGH — Mike Sullivan, who seems almost allergic to the extracurricular, decided to go retro in his response to Tom Wilson’s second controversial hit of this ongoing Penguins-Capitals second-round series.
Fed up with the ‘just coach’ approach, Sullivan tried a time-honored Stanley Cup playoff tradition: Working the league office.
“At a certain point, we would hope the league might do something,” Sullivan said, shortly after revealing that Zach Aston-Reese suffered a concussion and a broken jaw when Wilson threw his body into the Penguins rookie midway through the second period of Tuesday’s Game 3 at PPG Paints Arena.
Pressed for more of his opinion on what appeared to be at least a charging penalty — nothing was called by referees Francois St. Laurent and Kevin Pollock — Sullivan pulled back a bit, but his flabbergasted mood was obvious.
“It’s a high hit,” Sullivan added. “What else can I say? It’s a high hit.”
When even Mr. Just Play can’t contain his disdain for Wilson’s latest display of headhunting, you know it had to be difficult for the players to stay locked in on the game. Interestingly enough, though, the biggest beef some Penguins skaters had involved Wilson’s chuckle-hut reaction to Aston-Reese likely seeing his last game of these playoffs.
“I get the physical game,” said Kris Letang. “I get the physical play. I’ve been on the wrong side of it. At the end of the day, I respect what kind of game (Wilson) plays. But you don’t laugh at somebody getting hurt. You don’t do that.”
Justin Schultz kept it simple.
“That’s just disrespectful,” he said.
In fact, none of the Penguins I heard from professed to have seen the actual hit live, so maybe Wilson’s reaction to his work was the only thing to which they could immediately respond.
“Didn’t see it,” Letang added. “Of course, you saw the guy with blood all over his face and everything.”
Per a poor report conducted by local Professional Hockey Writers Association chapter head Rob Rossi, series officiating supervisor Paul Devorski said the men in stripes weren’t sure what they’d seen, either, so linesmen Greg Devorski and Ryan Gibbons were called in by St. Laurent and Pollock for an informal powwow amid the increasing madness inside PPG Paints Arena.
“When we have a big hit like that, and there’s a lot of stuff going on on the ice, our guys come together, because obviously both referees didn’t put their arm up, so obviously they didn’t think there was a penalty,” Paul Devorski said. “So now they bring in the linesmen, who if they think it’s a major penalty, they’ll tell the referees. So they all got together and they said, ‘You know what, we’ve got a good, clean check here.’”
Coincidentally, that was also the opinion of Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who outright told reporters after the game that his perspective came with a healthy heaping of bias.
“Both guys were bracing for (the hit),” Trotz said. “They were shoulder to shoulder. (Wilson) just blew through him. … To me, it was a hard hockey hit.”
Braden Holtby took it a step further, arguing that the sport has changed for the worse, making Wilson unfairly scrutinized.
“He hits clean, he just hits hard,” the goalie said. “I think today for some reason, it’s frowned upon to hit people in hockey.”
Needless to say, opinions will differ on the other side of the arena. And maybe even in the NHL Department of Player Safety, which deemed Wilson’s head check to Brian Dumoulin in Game 2 to be “unavoidable.”
While they wait for word on possible supplemental discipline, the Penguins have to be generally pleased with how they kept their wits about them even while the arena seemed on the verge of collapse while Aston-Reese was escorted to the home dressing room.
“It’s frustrating, but I think we handled it the right way,” Letang said. “We went out there, played physical. Threw some hits. I don’t think we crossed the line.”
In that way, perhaps keeping one’s cool at this time of year is unrealistic. The best a team can hope for when emotion boils is to channel that extra energy into something productive.
They can lament tactical mistakes in the third period Tuesday — and they surely did — but the Penguins can take solace in that they played their best hockey after watching a young teammate get unceremoniously knocked out of action.
“I loved it,” Letang said of the Penguins’ pushback. “I think our team showed emotion, which was great. We answered back with a big body check. We took the lead, played really well.”
It was enough to get Sullivan back on his usual track, just talkin’ hockey instead of the other noise and nonsense.
“The second period was a really good period for us,” Sullivan said. “We give up three scoring chances and two of them end up in our net. We’re doing a lot of good things out there, too. We’ve just gotta keep fighting.”