Tom Wilson never envisioned that his NHL debut would come in the midst of a tight first-round series in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but Friday night at Verizon Center the Capitals No. 2 prospect will do just that when he steps on to the ice for Game 5 against the New York Rangers.
“It’s unbelievable. Obviously it’s a dream come true. I’m really excited for this,” Wilson, 19, said after the morning skate at the team’s practice facility in Arlington.
With Martin Erat sidelined indefinitely by an injured left wrist or forearm, the Capitals shifted their forward lineup and were in need of a fourth-line right wing to play with Matt Hendricks and Jay Beagle.
Wilson’s blend of physicality and skill made him the top option for Coach Adam Oates to fill that role even with others – Joey Crabb, Aaron Volpatti and Wojtek Wolski – available.
“He had a great year. A big, strong kid. He’s obviously – he’s got a big body for a kid his age, so you know what? He can fit in. It’s a rarity, but it happens, and we think it’ll go great,” said Oates, who added that he’s trying not to overwhelm Wilson with information. “Just relax and play and enjoy the moment. Obviously, he’s going to be pretty hyped up, so I don’t think he’s going to listen to anything you say anyways.”
Alex Ovechkin knows his newest teammate might experience some butterflies for his NHL debut on such a big stage but he’s confident that the Capitals will help Wilson along.
“Yesterday I walk into locker room, I saw his face he was very excited. I’m sure he’s going to be little bit nervous tonight but that’s why we have such a good locker room, we’re going to help him,” Ovechkin said. “I don’t think he’s going to have some problems to play. … He’s big and he’s tough so that’s what we need right now.”
The 6 foot 4, 210 pound winger plays a similar style to that of Boston’s Milan Lucic. He doesn’t hesitate to throw his weight around, finishes his checks and over the past year he learned to balance the physicality with more offensive upside. He recorded 23 goals, 35 assists and 104 penalty minutes for the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers this season.
Wilson, who was selected 16th overall in the 2012 draft, believes his game lends itself to postseason play. So while there will be some adjust to the increased intensity and speed of the Stanley Cup playoffs, he’s well suited to jump into this gritty series and help Washington counteract Rangers like Ryane Clowe, Brian Boyle and Derek Dorsett.
“Every time there’s a chance to hit a guy, you should finish him because in a long series the bumps and the bruises, if you ask any hockey player, they add up,” Wilson said. “So guys finish their checks in the playoffs and they play hard. I’ve played in playoff games before and I love it and I’m a really competitive kid and just want to win so I’m going to do everything I can.”
Key for Wilson will be walking the fine line between physical play and unnecessary penalties. For as much as Wilson decreased his penalty minutes during the regular season in juniors (down from 141 in 2011-12), he had 41 in 12 OHL playoff games. In three Calder Cup playoff games with Hershey, Wilson spent six minutes in the box and had two penalties in his first AHL game.
“We’re not trying to give him too much information,” Oates said. “We don’t want to wear him out, but he’s a smart guy. He knows he’s got to be careful about penalties.”
Wilson said Matt Hendricks pulled him aside on Thursday and already told him not to over-complicate things in his first NHL game and the Capitals’ veteran grinder believes the youngster will fit in well on the fourth line.
“He moves well too for his size and he’s got ability. [If] you get pucks to him in the corners, he’ll be able to hold guys off and maybe take pucks to the net,” Hendricks said. “I think with his game, he’s going to be strong in front the net- point shots and such and causing havoc in front of the net.”