LAS VEGAS - The hits came hard and fast in this Stanley Cup Final rematch and the players liked it. It fed a rowdy crowd and created energy at T-Mobile Arena comparable to a playoff game. Then it went too far.
Vegas Golden Knights forward Ryan Reaves did to Tom Wilson what the Capitals' big winger has done to so many other players throughout his career. He took every opportunity to pound Wilson, a game plan to go after a man others around the league see as a bully.
But a blindside hit at 15:42 of the second period left Reaves hitting the showers early – a game misconduct for interference that gave Washington a five-minute major to try to extend a 2-1 lead. That didn't happen and ultimately a reliable power play floundered instead in a 5-3 loss to Vegas.
"It's a rivalry. There's good battle there, but that was something that Reaves targeted [Wilson] the entire game," Washington coach Todd Reirden said. "You could hear it on every faceoff. You could hear the things that were being said. It's a blindside hit where an unsuspecting player hits his head on the ice. That's disappointing. You could put two and two together, but he targeted him the entire game, so you can figure that out from there."
Ironically, Reaves got the penalty call Wilson should have in Friday night's win against the New Jersey Devils when he was ejected and hit with a five-minute major for what was ruled an illegal check to the head of forward Brett Seney, but replays showed it was an interference call instead. The league agreed the next day.
That, too, was a hit from behind. Wilson left the game, but did not receive a supplemental discipline hearing from the NHL Department of Player Safety. No one in the Washington locker room had any clue if Reaves would get the same treatment – or worse.
"Who knows? Who knows any more?" Capitals forward Brett Connolly said. "I don't think anyone knows what's going on anymore so we'll see."
So many other times Wilson's teammates have been on the other side defending him from hits labeled dirty or predatory. They fumed at his three-game suspension for a hit on Pittsburgh's Zach Aston-Reese during the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs last season. They saw a 20-game suspension this season – later reduced to 16 games by an independent arbitrator – as far too harsh for a preseason hit on St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist.
Ultimately, you have a group of players, including Wilson and the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Reaves, trying to come to grips with how the game is being called. This was a rematch that 15 years ago, given the history between the two teams in the championship series Washington won in five games, might have gotten out of hand with brawls and retaliations and multiple ejections. That's all being scrubbed away now. It's a good thing for the health of the players, but Wilson didn't look so good as he dropped to the ice after the Reaves hit, helmet flying, and his bare head hitting the ice.
He stayed down for a few minutes and skated woozily, with help, across the ice and down the tunnel. There was no update after the game other than the obligatory upper-body injury and that Wilson would travel with the team for its game in Phoenix. It is rare to see him in that state.
Reaves, one of the few players in the league big and strong enough to challenge the 6-4, 218-pound Wilson, was laughing at him early in the game when he knocked him to the ice as Wilson went for a big hit and lost. The Vegas bench howled. Reaves wasn't laughing as he went to the dressing room after his ejection and is lucky the Capitals' power-play didn't use that major penalty to put the game out of reach. To some players, that was punishment enough. They just didn't take advantage.
"We got the five-minute on the ice, so we got our chance to make up for it there. I don't think any of us in here have any clue what the player safety department bases anything off of anymore," goalie Braden Holtby said. "That's something that's completely out of our hands. You know, that's hockey. I think there's been a lot of complaining about that stuff. We grew up loving a game that's hard-nosed and you have to be tough to play it. I think that's how Tom plays as well. That's hockey. We move on, we got our chance on the power play to make them pay, but I don't know, it was a physical game and I wish we'd see more games like that. Unfortunately, with the player safety department, it's taken away from that."
You can sense in his words – and this is a goalie – a player grappling with the new rules, trying to understand what the league wants, but also enjoying the physical play, the adrenaline rush, the energy that comes with it. T-Mobile Arena was a roaring cauldron of noise. It was fun. But is there a way to reconcile that anymore?
The crowd roared at every Reaves hit on Wilson, the consummate villain outside of the District. The Capitals gave it right back. Alex Ovechkin almost sent Vegas center Tomas Nosek into outer space with a clean hit in the neutral zone that he never saw coming. It was all great theatre until it went too far.
"They had to make that call. I think they had to stay consistent with their calls," Connolly said of the Reaves ejection. "Wilson same thing last game [against New Jersey]. Similar. Kind of catches him. I don't know if it was to the head or top of the shoulder, but it's still one of those hits that they're trying to get out of the game. They've got a tough job, those refs. It's a quick game, they've got a tough job and they're trying to call it the way they're being told from people a lot higher than me and you. We're just trying as players to figure it out, too."
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