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The Penguins simply have no answer for Tom Wilson

Washington Capitals winger Tom Wilson is playing a fast, physical and effective game against the rival Penguins, and he’s giving Pittsburgh all sorts of problems.

PITTSBURGH – The record will show that Alex Ovechkin was the hero of Game 3 of the Washington Capitals’ second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. After all, scoring with 1:07 left to win the game has a way of attracting those kinds of accolades.

But if – and it’s still a big if at this point – the Capitals do manage to finally exorcise their demons against the Penguins in the playoffs, much of it will be because of Tom Wilson. Not because he blew up Brian Dumoulin in Game 2 and not because he concussed and broke the jaw of a fourth-line player in Game 3. Wilson is running amok in this series, causing havoc everywhere, making himself the villain. And the Penguins have no answer for it.

The most recent up-for-debate hit by Wilson came midway through the second period of Game 3, when he blasted Zach Aston-Reese of the Penguins with a high hit that left Aston-Reese bloodied and injured and Wilson in the Capitals bench. Whether it was a headshot or a clean hit will ultimately be up to the NHL, but the officials on the ice saw it as within the rules. “Both referees (Kevin Pollock and Francois St-Laurent) didn’t put their arm up, so obviously they didn’t think there was a penalty,” said NHL on-site supervisor Paul Devorski. “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.’ ”

The Penguins and a legion of others saw it differently. Was it a Rule 48 violation, a predatory headshot? That’s open to interpretation and the league will undoubtedly look at this hit hundreds more times before making a determination whether it warrants supplemental discipline. “We lose a guy with a broken jaw, who’s going to require surgery, and a concussion because of another high hit to the head,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “At some point we would hope the league might do something.”

It should be noted that the play after the hit was blown down at the 9:51 mark of the second period and that the Capitals tied the score at 11:04, just 1:13 later. Then when Matt Niskanen tied the score again in the third, it was Wilson who kept the play alive by digging the puck out of the corner.

Wilson is having a big-time effect on this series. He doesn’t have Bob Probert’s offensive prowess, but he can sometimes be just as scary. There’s an awful lot of Claude Lemieux in him, a player who made a career of playing his best and most effective hockey in the post-season. There’s a very good chance the NHL is going to deem this hit perfectly clean with a bad result, so those are the parameters in which Wilson does his work. Just because Ken Dryden (rightly) wants these hits out of the game doesn’t necessarily make them illegal. (Although it does make him a bit of a jerk that he was laughing on the bench while Aston-Reese’s gloves and blood were being removed from the ice.)

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At the very least, the Penguins are always aware of when he’s on the ice. And there doesn’t seem to be a thing they can do about it. If the Penguins can’t be protected by the rulebook, Wilson is going to continue to run roughshod over them. And his teammates certainly appreciate his contribution.

“We feed off that,” said Capitals goalie Braden Holtby. “Obviously, he has to be smart about it. I think he’s got a kind of unfair reputation. Watching him every day, he hits clean, he just hits hard. Today, for some reason, it’s frowned upon to hit people in hockey. Knowing the refs are going to be looking to call anything…and I think he knows that. He’s an intelligent player and intelligent guy. He creates that room for Ovi and (Evgeny Kuznetsov). He’s my type of player for sure.”

It’s also important to note that Wilson has worked his way back up to the top line for the Capitals, which means he can play the game. In fact, Wilson had more even-strength ice time than Ovechkin did in Game 3. Coaches don’t trust players that much and give them that much responsibility if they can’t play.

“There are very few Tom Wilsons in the league,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz. “That’s why he’s so effective, there are few guys that have that ability. He’s a first-line player, plays in all situations for us and he just keeps developing as a young man.”

One person who did not comment on the hit and its effect was Wilson himself. At one point after the game, Wilson was prepared to come out into the dressing room and was directed back before not being made available by the Capitals. They undoubtedly wanted to avoid a circus-like atmosphere in a rival building.

None to worry, however. Wilson is making his loudest proclamations on the ice.

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