As the Washington Capitals returned to a celebratory visiting locker room in Pittsburgh, Tom Wilson was waiting for them in a suit. At the sight of Evgeny Kuznetsov, who scored the game-winning overtime goal to send Washington to a conference final for a first time in 20 years, Wilson enthusiastically hugged him. “I think I might have been the happiest man in the building,” Wilson said.
But the three games leading up to that moment had been the hardest of Wilson’s career, forced to watch his teammates play on without him as he served a three-game suspension for what the league deemed an illegal check to the head of Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese. In Capital One Arena, he autographed “Free Wilson” jerseys for fans. In Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena, he took “absolute abuse” from the home fans.
“Some pretty vocal fan base for sure,” Wilson said Wednesday. “I got some mail this morning. I’m going to have to screen the packages that come in with my name on them.”
Wilson will be back in the lineup for Washington’s Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and this experience has both confounded and frustrated the 24-year-old power forward. He emphatically disagreed with the NHL Department of Player Safety’s decision to suspend him, as did his teammates, but he also recognized that with his hits under a microscope, he might have to err on the side of caution to avoid further discipline. How does a player who’s built a career on physicality adapt to tone down that part of his game?
“Just stay on the right side of the line,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “Obviously, the line moves a little bit for him, and so just recognizing there is a line. I’m not sure I know the line, and I’m not sure he knows the line. But obviously, the line is a little less than it was before.
“Just a little safer, yeah. That doesn’t mean he can’t be physical, he can’t play his game.”
The tricky part is that even with time to reflect, Wilson still believes he made a legal shoulder-to-shoulder check. Because he had been suspended twice already for two different hits in the preseason, he’s considered a repeat offender, which factored in the length of this suspension, as did the severity of Aston-Reese’s injury — a broken jaw and a concussion. The league determined that, although Wilson led with his shoulder, he elevated to make Aston-Reese’s head the main point of contact on a hit where that was considered avoidable. The check would have been legal had Wilson stayed low and delivered it through Aston-Reese’s core, according to the league. Wilson said he watched “almost every hit that the department has reviewed this year” to see the factors it considers in assessing suspensions, things such as when the head is struck and which way it snaps after the hit.
“I couldn’t see where they came up with the ruling on that one,” he said of the hit on Aston-Reese. “I’m just a little bit confused. From what I’ve heard, if you’re picking the head, the head’s snapping independent from the body. In that body check, our bodies are met, his head snaps down with his body, goes back in the same motion as his body, which indicates a full body hit. It means I didn’t pick his head. If I picked his head, it would snap differently from the body and that would be the primary point of contact. You know what, it’s tough. Obviously, I’m a repeat offender. I’ve got to be adapting. I’ve got to be changing kind of with the times here. …
“I’ve got to make sure that I’m finishing checks low, through the core. That’s what I heard from the video. Talking to [forward Devante Smith-Pelly and defenseman Brooks Orpik], how many guys finish through the core? You’re looking for that shoulder. It’s a body check.”
It’s a credit to how Wilson’s skill level has developed this season that the suspension put the Capitals at a disadvantage for three games. He’s played on a top line with Alex Ovechkin for most of the season, scoring a career-high 14 goals with 21 assists, and though the team won two games without him, Washington struggled to find a replacement in that role. His physical play creates space for Ovechkin and center Evgeny Kuznetsov, and he’s also the most defensively responsible of that trio. Ovechkin said opponents are “afraid” when Wilson is on the ice. Including the hit on Aston-Reese, Wilson had three controversial hits during the postseason that were closely reviewed by Department of Player Safety.
Forward T.J. Oshie showed his support by asking someone to Photoshop Wilson into the “Free Willy 2” movie poster, the sequel to Oshie’s “Free Willy” tweet at the start of the season, when Wilson was suspended for the first four games for boarding. Defenseman Matt Niskanen, who perfectly described Wilson as “a bull in a china shop,” said his teammate shouldn’t change anything about his game going forward.
“That hit is blown out of proportion just because of the result,” Niskanen said. “Tom has done a good job of trying to adapt to what the league wants him to do. The explanation in that video is almost comical. If I’m him, I go out and do my thing: play the game hard, try to keep your elbows tucked and your feet on the ice, and don’t worry about it.”
Said Wilson: “I had players from around the league, opponents, former players, former teammates, GMs, people of different leagues reaching out to me. When you get that kind of backing, when the players have each other’s backs, it’s different. You know it’s a bad hit if the guys on your team are going, ‘C’mon man, maybe that wasn’t the best play.’ When you’re getting texts from opponents from around the league and former players — guys that watch the game for a living, guys that played the game hard for a long time — saying, ‘Hey keep playing your game, we think that’s a clean hit,’ it’s tough.”
Wilson doesn’t want to be in a suit the next time he celebrates with his team, so as much as he and others might disagree with the league’s decision, he has to follow the standard it set.
“I’m a bigger guy,” said Wilson, who is 6-foot-4 and 218 pounds. “There’s more force being driven through my hits, so I have to be more careful. It’s just what it is. I think if the majority of our team makes that hit, it’s a big collision and maybe there’s no broken jaw on the play. I’ve got to be more careful for sure and I respect everyone at the department. I think they’re doing a good job to make the game a safer place. I’ve just got to work with them and make sure that I can’t put my team down. I can’t be out of the lineup.
“I want to play with energy, I want to play the same way, I want to make sure that I’m finishing checks. … I think anyone that’s watched hockey can admit that the game’s changing. Those big collisions, the league’s making us aware that they don’t want those anymore.”
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