CAPITAL ONE ARENA — Todd Reirden stood at the podium and fumed.
Often early in his first year as Capitals head coach, Reirden has appeared uncomfortable in these postgame sessions. The role is new to him and he sometimes appears a reluctant spokesman, arms folded or gripping the podium tight. Animated is not a word you’d use to describe him.
That changed Friday night after a weird 6-3 win against the New Jersey Devils. Reirden had every reason to be happy after his team’s seventh straight win, which vaulted it back into first place in the Metropolitan Division. But he was anything but after right wing Tom Wilson was hit with a match penalty for an illegal check to the head of New Jersey forward Brett Seney.
"I'm having a really tough time with this one because he isn't even intending to make a hit,” Reirden said. “It's incidental contact, and [Wilson] is following his [New Jersey] defenseman down the wall, the player backs into him, he tries to get out of the way of the player, makes himself as small as possible, and there's incidental contact. He's not even attempting to make a hit, and we get a five-minute penalty that could've cost us the game.”
Some stellar work from a rejuvenated penalty-kill unit allowed Washington to make it through the five-minute major penalty unscathed at the end of the second and beginning of the third periods in a 2-1 game. Andre Burakovsky and Nicklas Backstrom goals in the third put the Caps up 4-1 and that lead held.
Wilson and NHL officials need no introduction. He has just returned this month from a 20-game suspension, the result of a check to the head during a preseason game and an incredible run of bad hits and dumb decisions over 13 months that left league officials fed up. He missed nearly a quarter of the season and lost almost $1 million in salary.
The spotlight is never far from Wilson. It found him again at 17:39 of the second period when he hit Seney late in the left faceoff circle after the puck had gone into the left corner. The 6-foot-4, 218-pound Wilson made contact with the right shoulder of the 5-foot-9, 156-pound Seney and basic physics determined the rest.
Seney spun to the ice in pain. Wilson earned a match penalty for an illegal check to the head. On further review, that seems likely to be rescinded. Whether that will be enough for Wilson to avoid supplemental discipline, though, remains to be seen. His track record is long and checkered.
But he certainly didn’t launch himself at Seney, he didn’t hit him in the head, he wasn’t charging full speed as he did at St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist in the Sept. 30 incident that led to the 20-game suspension.
“It was more kind of back of my shoulder,” Seney said. “I don’t know if he was intending to do it or what. I haven’t had a chance to look at it yet.”
It was an obvious interference penalty – though Reirden disputed even that – and for most players, the ejection would probably be seen as enough by the Department of Player Safety. Tom Wilson is not most players.
These hits become Rorschach tests. Fans and media and industry insiders see what they want in most cases, every move parsed, every angle adding to their case. Only the Department of Player Safety’s opinion matters, though, and Wilson has to hope this time it doesn’t see a play worth a suspension.
Backstrom didn’t want to comment on the hit without seeing it. Devils coach John Hynes was sure the penalty call was correct and that the league would take a hard look at the play. For Evgeny Kuznetsov the lack of head contact made the difference.
Even surrounded by controversy, Wilson continued to show his development as a player. He scored his seventh goal in nine games since returning. He has six assists, too, and 13 points. Even with 20 games missed, he could still set career highs in goals (14) and assists (21) and points (35). That development is why Washington signed Wilson to a six-year contract over the summer. But the Caps need him on the ice and that will remain in some doubt for the next 24 hours.
For his part Reirden stood by his player, his voice rising as he described the play in great detail. It was easily the most animated Reirden has been during his short time as head coach. He referenced head shots to Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie during a Nov. 14 game at Winnipeg where both sustained concussions and neither play resulted in supplemental discipline.
That won’t be taken into account by the league, but Reirden was well into the airing of grievances by then. He was upset and making a point and maybe that will resonate with Wilson and his teammates, maybe his pushback will limit any further punishment. Maybe.
“This guy is doing everything he can to try to play the right way, and this is how things are happening,” Reirden said. “It's a tough situation. We just have two players that got concussions, they don't even call a penalty on [those hits], and we have to have a five-minute kill right there on a play that isn't even a hit. He isn't even trying to make a hit….It's a five-minute penalty and could've cost us a game in a big Metro Division game.”
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