On the day off between Games 4 and 5 of the first round series between the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders, the Islanders managed to get a few things off their chest concerning the Tom Wilson hit on Lubomir Visnovsky. It was all probably quite therapeutic for them.
Kyle Okposo referred to Wilson as “an idiot.” The Islanders were unanimous in their assertion that it was a dirty play and Islanders captain John Tavares called it, “a complete target of a defenseless player.” Considering the effects of the hit – Visnovsky is out indefinitely and with his history with concussions, it’s not a stretch to suggest it could be a very serious injury – you could understand why the Islanders were so incensed. Already dealing with the absence of Travis Hamonic on the blueline, the Islanders will lose a 38-year-old veteran with more than 800 NHL games in Visnovsky and replace him with a 20-year-old with zero NHL games in Ryan Pulock.
What made most of the headlines, however, was part of a sound bite from Tavares that suggested retribution was coming in Game 5. The essence of the headlines was Tavares saying that the Islanders “could hit guys like that too,” which was taken entirely out of context and makes me believe that sometimes the media that covers this game is a rather bloodthirsty bunch.
Here’s what Tavares actually said: “We could easily hit a lot of guys like that, too, but we stay within the rules and play the game the right way.” That, of course, changes the tone of Tavares’ sentiments drastically. Although Matt Martin did say in reference to the hit: "I think we can throw those hits, too." As much as some news outlets would have you believe that the Islanders are bent on revenge, there is too much at stake for them to get into a war of skullduggery with the Capitals.
And, really, what are the Islanders going to do? Hit the Capitals more? Well consider that Islanders bruisers Martin and Cal Clutterbuck are currently sitting 1-2 in hits in the playoffs, just as they did in the regular season. Between the two of them, they’ve led the NHL in hits each of the past seven seasons. And Tavares is absolutely right about the way they play on the right side of the rulebook. For two guys who hit so much and are so physical, Martin and Clutterbuck combined for just 174 penalty minutes this season. The players – Steve Downie, Cody McLeod and Derek Dorsett – had more minutes themselves this season and Wilson had just two minutes fewer.
No, there’s an excellent chance the Islanders will simply go about their business as usual tonight in Game 5. From a statistical standpoint, this is the closest matchup of all eight first-round series. Both teams finished with 101 points and 40 regulation/overtime wins, with Washington gaining home ice advantage on the basis of having an ever-so-slightly better head-to-head record during the season. In fact, three of the four games between the two teams went to extra time.
This series is basically a toss-up and it’s far too close right now for the Islanders to do anything but focus on playing hockey. And they probably also realize that looking for retribution would have a limited effect anyway. The Capitals are the third-heaviest team in the NHL this season behind the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings.
The Islanders might have a point with their protests of the Wilson hit. It’s hard to tell, actually. Charging is now decided by distance travelled, not the number of steps a player takes, and it certainly looks as though Wilson went out of his way to land a message-sending kind of hit. But he didn’t leave his feet, led with his shoulder and crumpled a player who was in an unfortunate position. This is one of those ones where I’m glad I don’t work in the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.
But at this point and for purposes of the series, it doesn’t matter that Wilson is not suspended. The Islanders are smart enough to know they have to move on. Both teams have a game to win, a game that could end up being pivotal to how this series turns out. Should the Islanders stick to hockey and win on the road, that will be vindication enough for now.