Aside from the tweaked fourth line, reassembled only due to salary cap restrictions corresponding to an unrelated injury, Coach Barry Trotz trotted out the same trios Sunday night as he had against both New York and Dallas, when the Washington Capitals suffered their first two-game losing streak at home since early November. Except for one major, ultimately pivotal difference: Gone from the top line was Marcus Johansson, the usual complement to Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom for the past five games. In his place stood a 6-foot 4-inch, 205-pound, 20-year-old, ornery oak tree.

For the first time since the regular season’s 35th game, forward Tom Wilson found himself at top-line right wing, which Trotz had previously expressed the intention for Wilson to occupy years into the future. The reasoning was simple, more tone-setting and bell-answering than anything: Against the physical Boston Bruins, Trotz wanted Wilson as muscle.

“I thought he had a tremendous impact for us,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “When he was going around, flying around, their D didn’t want to go back and get pucks. I know I don’t want to go back and get pucks when you have a guy like that rolling around, [wreaking] havoc all over the ice. You get guys when he’s out there, look over your shoulder, make sure you know where 43 is.”

The Bruins learned midway through the first period, when Wilson crushed forward Ryan Spooner and cleared a path for Ovechkin to unleash a shot wide of the cage. While Backstrom gathered the rebound and Wilson charged ahead toward the crease, forward Brad Marchand wrapped him up from behind and hauled him butt-first onto the ice.

(via @PeteBlackburn)

“A couple of those guys can kind of get undisciplined, and I finished my check and he hauls me down,” Wilson told reporters. “That’s a huge start for us tonight.”

With Wilson prone on the ground, Marchand snuck several punches in before the official wrestled him away. But the hand had already been raised. Bringing down Wilson was enough to earn a roughing penalty, and since Wilson licked his wounds and returned to the bench, the Capitals moved to the power play, where defenseman John Carlson blasted the eventual game-winning goal.

“If I had to do it again, I would do the same thing,” Marchand told Boston reporters after the game. Trotz felt something similar about how Wilson handled the sequence.

“Talk about emotional control that you need in big games, what Marchand did to him, it’s easy to react,” Trotz said. “We say you’ve got to take one for the team and he did. That’s a huge display of courage and commitment to your teammates. On the bench, I said keep your discipline, that was great. It deserved more than two minutes. I’ve seen fighting majors with more than those punches. Really good response by him. I think that really galvanized the commitment to staying real, real disciplined.”

Wilson skated 15 minutes, 40 seconds, his highest mark since Dec. 16, back before some fundamental issues – Trotz has cited puck management, for instance – buried him onto the fourth line, and most came during the opening two periods against Boston. (Trotz felt Wilson ran out of gas late, so Johansson shifted with Ovechkin and Backstrom during the third.) But by then, his impact had already been felt. He finished at plus-five in even-strength shot differential, recorded a team-high six hits and became the looming, disciplined presence Trotz wanted.

“He was skating, his legs were moving, he was hitting guy, he was taking hits, he was all over the place, in a good way,” Schmidt said. “He was making his presence felt out there tonight, and you know what, it really opens up space for so many little plays when he gets out there doing his thing. I think he opened up space for Ovi tonight, for Backie, a little extra couple shoulder checks. You never know where he is on the ice. He played a big factor, a big role for us.”