As the Caps carried a 2-0 lead late into the third penalty, they looked well on their way to another victory until Tom Wilson made things interesting. A strong hit to the Ottawa Senators' Curtis Lazar changed things in a hurry as Wilson was given a match penalty and ejected from the game, giving the Senators some power play time to work with.
Wilson seems to be earning an unwelcome reputation as a dirty player around the league. Was his hit on Lazar really a dirty hit according to the rules?
According to Rule 21.1 of the official NHL rules, a match penalty will be called when a player "deliberately attempts to injure or who deliberately injures an opponent in any manner." The referees therefore determined that Wilson was trying to deliberately injure Lazar on the play.
Let's look at what happens even before the hit. In the play, Ottawa is carrying the puck into the offensive zone. Wilson is skating back in order to back-check almost step for step with Lazar who is on Wilson's left. The direction Wilson is traveling is towards the opposite corner of the ice so from the right side to the left, it is not in the direction of Lazar until Lazar turns into Wilson's path. This disqualifies it as a charging penalty which specifically states that a violent hit be the result of "distance traveled." That is not the case here.
As Lazar is hit, the puck is located directly in front of him. In fact, it bounces off Lazar's stick just before Wilson makes contact. This makes Lazar the possessor of the puck and legal to check.
As Wilson makes contact with Lazar, Wilson's stick and feet remain on the ice and he does not extend his elbow. At first glance, the hit appears high, but part of that is height. Lazar is listed on the Senators website as 6 feet tall. Wilson is 6-foot-4. As Lazar leans to the puck and bends his knees, he lowers himself further, making the point of contact higher on the body. Lazar's head also whips around from right to left as he is hit making it appear like a hit to the head in real time, but from all replay angles it does not appear that Wilson hit Lazar's head at any point, nor did he hit him high. In fact, the back replay appears to show the principal point of contact to be Wilson's hip. This was not a high hit at all as WIlson's shoulder hits Lazar's shoulder and his hip hits Lazar's abdomen.
The hit clearly caught Lazar unaware, but that in itself does not make the hit illegal. Rule 43.1 makes reference to this saying it is illegal for "a check to be delivered on a player who is not aware of the impending hit, therefore unable to protect or defend himself, and contact is made on the back part of the body." As we have already seen, however, Wilson is not coming at Lazar from behind, but from the side. The replay from the back angle shows the best view of this as Wilson's hip contacts Lazar in the side. Both numbers of Lazar's jersey are visible, meaning Wilson is not striking Lazar's back. In fact, Lazar's right knee actually appears to be behind Wilson's legs. This cannot be described as a hit from behind.
According to the rule book, the penalties that can result in a match penalty are hair pulling, head-butting, high-sticking, illegal check to the head, kicking a player, kneeing, punching and injuring an unsuspecting opponent, slashing, slew-footing, spearing, throwing stick or any object or wearing tape on hands in altercation. None of those apply in this case.
What we have then is a check from the side to the possessor of the puck that does not strike Lazar anywhere in the head or back. Lazar may not be expecting the hit, but that does not automatically mean that Wilson was intending to injure Lazar or that the hit was illegal.
As Wilson was assessed a match penalty, the rules state that "the player shall be automatically suspended from further competition until the Commissioner has ruled on the issue." The league must look this play over before Wilson will be allowed to play again. For those who think Wilson is being unfairly targeted by the referees, perhaps the pending ruling on this play will allow for a measure of vindication.