Dirty and borderline plays are marring what was hyped as a classic series in the making

PITTSBURGH -- The hits keep on coming in a series loaded with skill but dominating the headlines for the wrong reasons.

A game after Brooks Orpik leveled Olli Maatta with a high, late hit that garnered the Washington Capitals defenseman a three-game suspension, star blueliner Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins is now facing potential supplemental discipline for his high hit on Marcus Johansson in Game 3 on Monday night.

The series began with Tom Wilson's questionable leg-on-leg hit on Conor Sheary in Game 1, which netted him a fine.

There has been a constant undercurrent of hate between the two rivals. We all love tough, emotional, physical hockey -- as long as it doesn't cross the line.

This series needs to be reined in.

The question now is whether this series turns on Letang's hit or not. His absence would be a huge blow to a thin Penguins blue line.

All we know at this point is that the NHL's player safety department is looking at the play. Where it goes from there, we'll know on Tuesday.

"I didn't see him coming, he came from the blind side," Johansson said after his team's 3-2 loss in Game 3, which gave Pittsburgh a 2-1 series lead. "I just looked at it; he obviously leaves his feet, and hits me in the head. It's the kind of play you want out of the league. Doesn't look good."

Given Orpik's suspension, Johansson was then asked, did he expect the same thing to happen to Letang?

"Yeah, I'd say so," said the Capitals forward.

It's not that simple, of course. For starters, Letang's hit wasn't nearly as late as Orpik's. However, no question it was a high hit.

The other important factor is that while Maatta was injured and missed Game 3, his return to the series unknown, Johansson returned to the game on Monday night. The player safety group takes that into consideration.

"I went through all the concussion tests and stuff like that. Just some issues with my neck right now," Johansson said. "I just got hit right in the head and a little whiplash I think. It is what it is."

Letang, interestingly, spoke with reporters after the game. Most often players who face potential discipline don't want to say anything that might hinder them in a possible hearing with the league.

"I mean, I didn't see it," Letang said of his hit on Johansson, meaning he hadn't seen a replay of it. "Things happened fast. I know he was down after the hit. He was OK, he returned to the game. He was pretty physical on me afterward. I was happy he wasn't injured.

"I saw him coming full-speed. I tried to step up in the middle. Things happen fast, I can tell you that."

Letang also added he had no intention of hurting Johansson.

"It was just a step up to hit him. There was no intention," he said.

Letang has been suspended once before in his career, a two-game ban in October 2011 for boarding Alex Burmistrov.

In the Caps' locker room, the hope is that NHL justice treats the star players just like anyone else.

"It will be interesting how they handle it," said star Caps goalie Braden Holtby. "If it's fair, he won't be in next game. But that's out of our control."

Added Holtby: "It's one of those ones that hopefully they treat everyone the same. That's all I can say."

There were other borderline plays in this game, including Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom kneeing Letang behind the head, presumably by accident, as well as Penguins forward Chris Kunitz slashing Caps winger Justin Williams in the stomach.

The team that's going to win this series is going to be the one that's able to control itself.

"Yeah, that's extremely key in playoffs," Holtby said of playing between the whistles. "Your emotions, you have to keep them in check, you have to keep them level, where you can have your ultimate focus. We've been told by the refs and the league, retaliation is going to get called. And it should. It's about mental toughness in that area, and we're getting better and better as the playoffs go on."

The series began with all the hype centered around Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin facing off again. They've been usurped as a storyline by the side of the game no one wants to see.