It’s hard to imagine the Washington Capitals were surprised to learn that John Erskine must serve a three-game suspension for an elbow to the head of Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds. A year ago they dealt with the ramifications of center Nicklas Backstrom taking a cheap-shot elbow to the head from Rene Bourque.
And while Erskine did not have “malicious intent,” according to NHL vice president of player safety Brendan Shanahan, the defenseman will still miss the next three games after giving Simmonds a head injury. The Caps were prepared for the immediate aftermath Friday night and are ready for life without Erskine in the near future.
Tom Poti is expected to return to the lineup in Erskine’s place for the Super Bowl Sunday afternoon game against the rival Pittsburgh Penguins.
“It’s not the way you want to get in the lineup,” Poti said. “But if they need me to play I’ll be ready.”
Poti isn’t the same kind of big, rugged defenseman as Erskine, but the Caps will need him to contribute and eat up big minutes. Erskine was more than a solid contributor since making his season debut Jan. 25 at the New Jersey Devils, even scoring a goal during his stint in the lineup.
Erskine’s impact Friday night was knocking Simmonds out of the game by lifting his right elbow up and striking the forward in the face.
“Erskine and Simmonds are pursuing a 50/50 puck in the Philadelphia zone,” Shanahan said in the video announcing the suspension. “When Erskine realizes he is going to get beat, he tries to get a piece of his opponent to prevent an outnumbered rush. However, in doing so he raises his elbow, striking Simmonds in the face. …
“As the two men approach the puck, Erskine looks up and clearly is aware of Simmonds’ proximity before delivering the illegal hit. While we acknowledge there was no malicious intent and that Erskine was reacting to getting beat, this nevertheless is a reckless elbow to the head that caused a serious injury.”
Coach Adam Oates and Caps players defended Erskine on Saturday afternoon before the suspension was announced.
“Guys know that John Erskine’s one of the toughest guys in the league by far, but he does it within the rules of the game and he’s clean,” forward Matt Hendricks said. “There definitely was no intent.”
But Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said it looked like a dirty hit as soon as he saw the play happen. He put agitator Zac Rinaldo on the ice for the next faceoff, and Hendricks dropped the gloves to keep things from getting out of hand.
“I felt maybe it was a good time just to nip it in the bud right away and get it over with so we could get back to playing hockey because I knew they would start running around and maybe cheap shot some of our guys,” Hendricks said.
There weren’t many extracurriculars the rest of the game, but Simmonds did not return and missed Saturday night’s game. The Caps and Flyers don’t meet again until Feb. 27.
For the next three games, Washington will draw from its depth on defense. Poti and Roman Hamrlik have been healthy scratches for the past five games.
Oates said Poti will be prepared to play Sunday against Pittsburgh because “that’s part of being a pro.” The 35-year-old hadn’t played in two years because of a groin injury and fractured pelvis before coming back to skate in the season opener Jan. 19.
“He had two years off. He knows how to play the game,” Oates said. “And he’s had another week of skating at this speed, NHL speed, to see the game and also see our system, which I think is growing within the team. We talk about it out there, what I see that he needs to do to fit into the system.”
Erskine being suspended may not be what Poti and the Caps want, it could be the break the veteran defensman needs.
“I definitely need to get in a game,” Poti said. “You don’t want to sit out too long and get stale. Like I said, it’s hard to have your game legs when you’re not playing. For me I think it’s important for me to get out there and get adjusted to the pace of the game and things like that. But we’re all professionals and if I get the call I’ll be ready and go out and do my best.”