PITTSBURGH – Tom Wilson’s aggression helped propel him from fourth-line grinder into a difference-maker who skates alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
His teammates feed off the edginess of his play. His coach loves his tenacity.
“There are very few Tom Wilsons in the league,” Barry Trotz said.
And in Game 4 of Washington’s increasingly prickly Eastern Conference semifinal against Pittsburgh, there won’t be any at all.
The league suspended Wilson three games for his run-in with Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese that left the rookie with a concussion and a broken jaw.
Aston-Reese was skating in front of the Washington bench when Wilson’s left shoulder hit some combination of Aston Reese’s shoulder and jaw in the middle of the second period.
Following a brief conference among the on-ice officials, Wilson was not penalized on the play and the Capitals used it as a rallying point on their way to a dramatic 4-3 victory that gave them a 2-1 series lead.
The league, however, suspended Wilson following a hearing on Wednesday, ruling the hit was illegal. The league considered Aston-Reese’s head the initial point of contact and called the incident avoidable.
The decision means the Capitals are now forced to push the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions to the brink of elimination without one of their most physical players.
Trotz defended Wilson, who has now been disciplined by the department of player safety three times this season.
“It was a collision,” Trotz said Wednesday before the suspension was announced. “They hit and to me it looked like body on body. We’ve stopped it, we’ve looked at it, there’s pictures all over the Internet that you can see. He doesn’t leave his feet. It’s body-on-body. … I’m surprised the player has the injury that he has.”
The incident overshadowed the kind of taut and electric play that’s come to symbolize one of the NHL’s top rivalries.
Sidney Crosby gave the Penguins the lead with a goal late in the second period only to have Washington – in a historically un-Washingtonlike move whenever the Capitals face Pittsburgh – beat Matt Murray twice in the third to win, the last coming on Ovechkin bunting in a rebound of his own shot with just 1:07 to play.
“I really believe this year has felt a little bit different,” Washington forward Jay Beagle said. “Even in season when we would get down a couple goals we could fight back. It seems like we’re never out of it.”
Then again, it’s been 36 months since the Penguins have exited the postseason without the Cup on the team plane.
Pittsburgh has ripped off nine consecutive series victories during its run at the top, and has only trailed after three games once, in last year’s Eastern Conference final against Ottawa.
The Penguins rebounded to win in seven games and there’s hardly any panic. It’s not what Pittsburgh does.
The other thing the Penguins try not to do? Get so caught up in trying to retaliate against Wilson that they forget why they’re out there in the first place.
Defenseman Kris Letang pointed to his team’s antagonist – and entirely legal – response to Wilson in Game 3 as proof.
Jake Guentzel delivered a shot into the end boards. Defenseman Jamie Oleksiak basically begged Wilson to fight, but didn’t take it too far when Wilson failed to engage.
“After the whistle we walked away,” Letang said. “There’s not much business to do. I liked our answer.”
The Penguins will need another one if they want to keep their hopes of becoming the first team in 35 years to three-peat alive. They’ve only dropped consecutive games in the playoffs five times in two-plus years and have lost to Washington only once in 10 all-time postseason meetings.
The Capitals have momentum on their side. Pittsburgh has history.
“It’s hard to win in the playoffs and you’re going to go through ups and downs and emotional highs and emotional lows,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “And it’s all about how you handle those and respond. … Right now our eyes are on Game 4.”
Undisciplined or plain sloppy?
The Nashville Predators won the Presidents’ Trophy despite leading the NHL in penalty minutes. They had played with much more discipline until melting down with three consecutive penalties helping turn a 3-0 lead after the first period into a 7-4 loss and a 2-1 deficit to the Winnipeg Jets.
Now Nashville faces a challenge on Thursday night (6:30 p.m. PT NBCSN) in their Western Conference semifinal to avoid being pushed to the brink of elimination in the best-of-seven series.
“We have a smart group,” Predators center Ryan Johansen said Wednesday. “We understand what we did wrong and what needs to be done.”
Not only did the Predators not help themselves with five penalties – three in the third after tying the Jets at 4-4 – they didn’t play well after grabbing a big lead.
“We just sat back too much,” Predators forward Filip Forsberg said. “Obviously they scored a goal early and after that we just became passive and, yeah, I don’t think it would have mattered which team we were playing. If we play like that, we’re going to get scored on.”
Penguins forward Phil Kessel set a career high with 92 points during the regular season, but has just one secondary assist through three games of the series and – perhaps more troubling for a player with 330 goals – only four shots on net.
Sullivan and the coaching staff met with Kessel before Game 3 in an attempt to provide insight into what Kessel could do to get it going. The main thing? Just becoming more active. Sullivan wants Kessel to get closer to traffic in front of the net instead of loitering at the half boards looking for an opening.
AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker contributed to this report.
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