Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson was suspended three playoff games by the NHL Department of Player Safety on Wednesday for a hit to the head of Pittsburgh Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese in Game 3 of their teams' Eastern Conference semifinal series.
In the second period of Tuesday night's game, Wilson delivered a check that made contact with Aston-Reese's head and sent the Penguins player facedown to the ice with what was later diagnosed as a broken jaw and a concussion, according to coach Mike Sullivan.
The Department of Player Safety told ESPN that the combination of an "extreme injury" and an "extreme history" were the factors in deciding on three games for Wilson. Wilson was suspended twice in the preseason -- two games for interference and four games for boarding.
"Repeat offender" status is any suspension in the past 18 months. Wilson has been suspended three times in seven months.
In reviewing Wilson's hit on Aston-Reese, the NHL ruled that he delivered the check by elevating "up and into" the hit, making the head the main point of contact to cause an injury. According to the Department of Player Safety, reverse angles of the hit showed Aston-Reese's head snapped back in a manner consistent with other hits where the head was the main point of contact. His injuries also indicate the head was the main point of contact, meaning the hit constituted an illegal check to the head.
The NHL also said that Aston-Reese didn't make a sudden move to cause the head contact, and that Wilson did not attempt to deliver a full legal bodycheck on Reese, instead extending up and in "unnecessarily" and delivering the hit on the toes of his skates.
"The onus is on the player that this upward motion does not pick the head," the NHL said in its ruling.
Sullivan called for the NHL to take action after Wilson knocked Penguins players out of consecutive playoff games with hits to the head.
"We lose a guy to a broken jaw that's going to require surgery and a concussion because of another high hit to the head," Sullivan said after the Penguins' Game 3 loss to the Capitals on Tuesday gave Washington a 2-1 series lead. "At some point, we would hope that the league might do something."
Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who defended Wilson for having made a "hard hockey hit" that was "shoulder to shoulder" after Game 3, said his team is ready to adjust without Wilson in the lineup for Game 4. Wilson has two goals and five assists in nine playoffs games, skating on a line with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov.
"We'll prepare like we always do. The focus is on the next game, and any adjustments or any changes we make, we'll react however we need to. We're taking roll call today and we'll see where we are," Trotz said Wednesday.
Wilson is known for playing on the edge of legality with his hits. In the first round of the playoffs, he injured Columbus Blue Jackets forward Alex Wennberg, which resulted in a charging penalty but no supplemental discipline.
In Game 2 on Sunday, Wilson collided with Pittsburgh defenseman Brian Dumoulin in the second period. Dumoulin didn't return to the game after entering the concussion protocol. The league ruled that contact with Dumoulin's head was unavoidable on the play, as the defenseman stopped short to brace for a hit from an onrushing Ovechkin.
Then, in Game 3, Wilson took out Aston-Reese in the second period.
The NHL Department of Player Safety has issued five suspensions during the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs; four stemmed from making contact with an opponent's head via an illegal hit (twice) or a cross-check (twice), and all but Nazem Kadri's three-game suspension for boarding were for one game.
During the preseason, Wilson was suspended for two exhibition games for an interference penalty against St. Louis Blues forward Robert Thomas on Sept. 22. He later received a four-game ban for a boarding penalty against the Blues' Sammy Blais on Oct. 1.
It has all fed a reputation that has earned every borderline Wilson hit extra scrutiny.
"That comes with the territory. If he's involved, it's going to get more attention than other guys," said Capitals teammate Brooks Orpik. "But for Tommy to be effective, he has to play the same way he plays. I don't think he can approach games differently. He does a lot of good things for us, and at times maybe he straddles that line a bit. Some people aren't happy with it, but like I said, he does a lot of good things for our team."