ARLINGTON, Va. — Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson wore the label like a tattoo during his first four NHL seasons: a fourth-line enforcer who often committed bad penalties with devastating hits.
Since selecting him with the 16th overall pick in the 2012 draft, the Capitals had tried on and off to make Wilson, 24, fit on one of their top lines, but the experiment always seemed to fizzle — until this season.
Now, the 6-foot-4, 218-pound Wilson is skating on the Capitals’ top line with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, bringing energy, controlling the physical side of his game, scoring and playing a crucial defensive role.
“He’s such a dynamic player,” Washington centre Jay Beagle said. “There is no slow start for him. He goes all out. He is scoring and making plays. The defensive side of his game, the way he kills penalties and the way he hits and puts fear into other team’s eyes — especially the defensive core. There are maybe two or three other guys that play a similar style like him in the league.”
Wilson might provide the spark that pushes the Capitals over the hump against the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins, who have owned Washington in the playoffs. The Penguins have won nine of the teams’ past 10 series dating to 1991.
The teams’ current series is tied at 1-1, with Game 3 in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. Wilson’s presence has been felt in the first two games, in ways both good and bad.
In Game 1, he had two assists, including one on an Ovechkin goal, to help the Capitals to a 2-0 lead before they surrendered three third-period goals in a 3-2 loss.
During the Capitals’ 4-1 win in Game 2 on Sunday, Wilson knocked Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin out of the game with a controversial second-period hit. According to multiple news reports Monday, Wilson will not be suspended for the hit.
“He makes an impact in each game,” said Capitals defenceman Brooks Orpik, a former Penguin. “He opens things up for Kuzy and Ovi with his physicality. He complements those guys really well. He handles a lot of the defensive responsibilities for that line, which a lot of people don’t realize.”
Wilson’s lack of consistency and discipline had been his undoing since he entered the league at 19. He was suspended twice this season for late and excessive hits in pre-season games. But Wilson, who will be a restricted free agent in July, produced career highs in goals (14), assists (21) and ice time per game (15:59) this regular season. He also sees time as a key penalty killer.
Wilson himself is in the penalty box a lot — he ranked second in the NHL with 187 minutes this season, behind Florida’s Micheal Haley (212 minutes), and leads the league with 806 (that’s equivalent to 13 games) since the 2013-14 season. But he has often sent players there, drawing a league-high 54 penalties this season.
Wilson said developing a rapport with officials has become more important.
“When you are a young guy, I think the refs kind of shrug you off,” he said. “You get the cold shoulder a lot. That said, I have built a reputation of playing physical. When there is a scrum and there is 10 guys in there, and they are looking to call one penalty, they may decide I was the aggressor. I would like to think they know I am an honest player and I am working hard and there’s emotion in the game.”
Wilson proved he could perform in the post-season last year against the Toronto Maple Leafs, his hometown team. He scored three goals, including two in a 4-2 Game 4 victory in Toronto, as Washington won the first-round series in six games.
He came through again in the Capitals’ first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets this season. He scored the opening goal in road victories in Games 3 and 4 to swing the series in Washington’s favour after the Capitals fell behind by two games to none.
Wilson recognized that he put the team in a bad spot in the first two games against Columbus by committing costly penalties in each that resulted in power-play goals. He desperately wanted to make amends.
“I felt I owed a little bit to my teammates,” said Wilson, who did not have a shot on goal in either game. “I made a couple of bad decisions that came back to haunt us. You have to make sure you are hungry to do more for your team.”
Washington coach Barry Trotz urged Wilson to pattern his game after his former Capitals teammate Joel Ward, who now plays for the San Jose Sharks. Ward, a hardworking and gritty player, excels in the corners and has scored his share of crucial playoff goals.
“We asked him to be more like Ward and it started from day one,” Trotz said. “Ward had so much patience along the boards. He had a good feel from where the pressure was coming.”
Wilson played with Ward for his first two seasons and they talked frequently about playing an honest game.
“Off the ice, he was kind of like a big brother,” Wilson said. “He took me under his wing. When you see a guy in your position that plays a lot of minutes, and plays that role, it’s smart to watch and learn. He would get the job done when he needed to, and I would watch those little things and do them right.”
Keith Jones, an analyst for NBC Sports, said Wilson reminded him of another player in these playoffs known for scoring and pestering opponents: Boston’s Brad Marchand.
“Marchand came in with a little bit of a different role, more of antagonistic role, and has developed into one of the top five players in the game,” Jones said. “Wilson isn’t to that level, but he has made the jump from a fourth-line player who was there to provide energy and support his teammates to one relied upon do a lot of other things that contribute to Washington’s success.”