The final embers of the New York Rangers’ playoff hopes were extinguished Monday night. But thanks to Tom Wilson, there’s plenty of intrigue as the Rangers prepare to begin playing out the string Wednesday night.
Wilson, the Washington Capitals’ polarizing enforcer, will be the center of attention Wednesday night, when the Capitals visit the Rangers in the final game of the season between the two longtime rivals.
The rivalry grew more heated in the opener of the two-game series in New York on Monday night, when Wilson drew four penalties and added an empty-net goal to finish off the Capitals’ 6-3 win.
Wilson’s goal — scored with 1:26 left and a few minutes after the Rangers (26-21-6, 58 points) were officially eliminated from playoff contention by virtue of the Boston Bruins’ 3-0 win over the New Jersey Devils — was an afterthought following a second-period sequence in front of the Capitals’ net.
Rangers left winger Pavel Buchnevich tried poking the puck into the net during a battle in the crease before he fell to the ice, where Wilson — who was in the penalty box for roughing when Mika Zibanejad scored 2:30 into the second — punched Buchnevich in the back of the head.
Ryan Strome pulled Wilson off Buchnevich, and Artemi Panarin arrived to try to prevent Wilson from punching Strome. Wilson pulled off Panarin’s helmet while dragging him to the ice and then pushed him as Panarin tried to get up.
“I thought it was just a scrum,” Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette said Monday night. “Physical play. There was something going on originally with the goalie and jamming at the goalie. We had a bunch of players jump in there. It happens a lot.”
Panarin didn’t play the remainder of the game with what the Rangers said was a lower-body injury. Head coach David Quinn said Tuesday that Panarin will not play in the Rangers’ final three games.
Wilson — who was suspended seven games earlier this season for boarding the Boston Bruins’ Brandon Carlo and has missed 30 games in his eight-year career for disciplinary reasons — drew 14 minutes worth of penalties following the altercation. On Tuesday, the NHL fined Wilson $5,000, the maximum allowed by the collective bargaining agreement, for punching Buchnevich.
“I think it’s a joke, to be honest with you,” Strome said after learning of Wilson’s fine following practice Tuesday. “A defenseless player in Panarin with no helmet on — a superstar in our league. I think it’s a joke.”
Quinn noted the Rangers don’t have an enforcer type such as Wilson and that it would be difficult to retaliate by starting a brawl Wednesday.
“It’s what we are,” Quinn said. “It’s who we are. It’s what we have. And we’re going to have to manage it.”
Beyond all the Wilson-generated drama lies a pivotal game for the Capitals (33-14-5, 71 points), who entered Tuesday in a first-place tie with the Pittsburgh Penguins (34-16-3, 71 points) in the East Division. The Capitals are just three points ahead of the third-place Boston Bruins (31-14-6, 68 points). The Penguins were scheduled to visit the Philadelphia Flyers and the Bruins were slated to visit the Devils on Tuesday night.
Alex Ovechkin, who returned Monday after missing four games with a lower-body injury, played just 39 seconds against the Rangers before exiting. He didn’t practice Tuesday.
–Field Level Media