WASHINGTON — Before the Capitals raised their first Stanley Cup banner in franchise history to the rafters on opening night of the NHL season, each member of the team was introduced to the raucous home crowd. That included Tom Wilson, the physical 24-year-old top-line winger and fan favorite, who received one of the loudest ovations.
Unless he wins an appeal, it will be the last appearance for Wilson in a Capitals uniform for quite some time.
He was suspended 20 games by the NHL Department of Player Safety hours before Washington’s 7-0 blowout of the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night. The inciting incident was an illegal check to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist during Sunday’s preseason game. But the enormity of the suspension was the result of this being Wilson’s fourth ban in a span of 105 games.
As thrilled as the Capitals were following an emphatic win and a final celebration of their championship, they were equally angry about the league’s decision to throw the book at Wilson.
“If I’m going to say what I think, they’re going to suspend me too,” said center Evgeny Kuznetsov.
“Honestly, I think it’s garbage,” winger Devante Smith-Pelly told ESPN. “We watched a video from the league saying what hits are good and which ones aren’t. They showed some hits that were way worse than that … maybe not in force, but as it regards to the head, that were so-called ‘allowed.’ I guess he just has a different rule book, and I think it’s garbage, honestly.”
The Department of Player Safety argued that it wasn’t just the nature of the hit, but the unprecedented frequency of Wilson’s suspensions. There were only 16 games between Wilson’s last suspension, for breaking the jaw of Zach Aston-Reese of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, and this one.
“That’s fine. But you have to look at each hit. You can’t just [suspend] because it’s him,” Smith-Pelly said. “We all feel he went through the shoulder. The guy has a separated shoulder. Just because it’s him, you don’t have to make a statement.”
Capitals winger T.J. Oshie found out about the suspension when he arrived for Wednesday’s game at around 5 p.m. ET. He texted a message of support to Wilson, and Oshie then gave him a supportive hug when he saw Wilson in the dressing room.
“He wants to be out here with us. He earned a nice contract, and now he’s losing a quarter of that,” Oshie said.
Wilson will forfeit $1,260,162.60 if the suspension is upheld. He has a right to appeal to a neutral arbitrator since his suspension is more than six games.
Oshie drew a contrast between Wilson’s actions and those of Bruins winger Brad Marchand, who was given an instigator penalty and a misconduct for punching Capitals center Lars Eller in the third period on Wednesday, leading to a fight in which Marchand bloodied the Washington player.
“I think it’s unfortunate for Tom that the league is making an example out of him. They set the standards. They want to get the dirty stuff out of the game,” Oshie said. “At least Tom’s play was on the ice. He was hitting a guy who had the puck milliseconds before. Then you see out there tonight, the sucker punches that [Lars] Eller took. They set the standard. Marchand has a history. We trust that they’ll do what they’re supposed to do and take care of business.”
The Wilson suspension was the off-ice story on Wednesday. On the ice, the Capitals shook off any doubt about a Stanley Cup hangover by skating the Bruins out of the arena. The Capitals had a 2-0 lead in the first 1 minute, 47 seconds of the game. By the 7:28 mark of the second period, it was 5-0, and Bruins starting goalie Tuukka Rask (14 saves) was pulled by coach Bruce Cassidy for Jaroslav Halak, making his Boston debut.
“They were in shock,” said Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who gave the Stanley Cup one final kiss at the end of the pregame ceremony. “We got a couple of lucky bounces, and got another one. And then after that, we settled down and played our game.”
The Capitals fans chanted “back to back!” in the final moments of the blowout, echoing a chant that Oshie started at their championship parade in June.
“I said it because I believe it. We’ve got a lot of guys in here who, not too long ago, were raising the Stanley Cup above our head. Not a lot has changed,” Oshie said. “Obviously tonight, it’s Game 1. But the way we played, did the little things; that’s what won us the Stanley Cup last year, and it’s still in our game now. So I believe it.”