Kris Letang and the Interference Penalty

Late in the first period of Monday night’s game between the Penguins and the Capitals, Washington center Marcus Johansson took a brutal hit from Pittsburgh defenseman, Kris Letang that resulted in a one-game suspension. With 21-year old defensive phenom Olli Maatta out with an upper body injury, the Penguins have to face the likes of Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Oshie without their top two defensemen.

The hit on Johansson wasn’t a direct head shot which would have resulted in an illegal check to the head penalty. The officials didn’t seem to think the head was the main target of the hit and the footage seemed to back that up. It also wasn’t deemed a charging penalty though many claim Letang’s skates were off the ice before contact. A close examination, however, seems to indicate that his skates didn’t leave the ice until contact was already made. In the end the NHL Department of Player Safety is focused on one simple fact; Johansson wasn’t eligible to be hit in any manner on that play, the puck was long gone, and that makes Letang’s hit illegal no matter what.

The one-game suspension comes at an important time for the Penguins who lead the series 2-1. With both Maatta and Letang out for Game 4, they will have to rely on rookie Derrick Pouliot and former Edmonton Oiler Justin Schultz to pick up the slack. Schultz hasn’t seen the ice since Game 1 of the first round and Monday was Pouliot’s first playoff game ever.

When asked how he plans to deal with the lack of experienced defensemen Penguin’s coach Mike Sullivan was matter-of-fact. “We’ll prepare the same way,” Sullivan said. “We’re not going to change our style of play. We’ve had guys go down with injuries for long stretches of time, important players. So, I think our team understands how we have to play in order to be successful.”

The series between these two teams has had its fair share of cheap shots and controversy. Game 1 saw Capitals’ forward Tom Wilson go out of his way to make knee-to-knee contact with Penguins’ forward Conor Sheary. While no penalty was called on the ice, Wilson later received a fine. In Game 2, it was Brooks Orpik’s illegal hit that knocked Maatta out for at least 2 games. Orpik received a 3-game suspension for the check. Letang’s penalty and suspension in Game 3 are only the next in a series. Clearly this has been a bruising and emotional series.

With the favored Capitals a game down it’s a sure bet that things are not going to get any softer on the ice either. Whether the sentences being handed down by Player Safety will help to keep the series under control remains to be seen.