LAS VEGAS – Tom Wilson once again accelerated, skating full bore across center ice and loading up for another bone-crushing hit. It mattered little that the Washington Capitals forward was playing in his first Stanley Cup game on Monday night, where he played with his usual bruising style, finishing each check against the Vegas Golden Knights with his vintage ferocity. But this play on the open ice in the third period was different. Wilson put center Jonathan Marchessault in his cross-hairs and drove through him with a shoulder-to-shoulder hit.
The collision, which drew boos from a raucous Vegas crowd that ended the night celebrating the Golden Knights’ 6-4 win in Game 1, will certainly thrust more controversy onto the 24-year-old Wilson. His hit blindsided Marchessault, who was not handling the puck at the time of the collision. He stayed down on the ice and was dazed for a few moments before disappearing to the locker room, while Wilson was slapped with a minor penalty for interference.
The more pressing question for Wilson is whether the league will levy more punishment, which is nothing new for the Capitals’ first liner. He’s already been suspended three times this season for illegal hits, including three games for a controversial hit in the second round against Pittsburgh, and his shot on Marchessault only stirred the pot in what was a wild first game of this most unexpected Stanley Cup finals.
The NHL’s department of player safety reviews every collision, and this one will be examined closely. There wasn’t contact with Marchessault’s head, but the hit was late, so the league will examine the extent of the lateness when considering supplemental discipline. It is very rare that a hit without head contact would warrant a suspension.
“I haven’t obviously slowed it down and looked at it but I think he’d probably say he shouldn’t have admired his pass and I’m just finishing my check,” Wilson said.
“I’ve been told it was, you know we’re talking tenths here. I don’t know. I think it’s game speed I felt like I delivered it in good time. I think he let up a little bit because he wasn’t aware I was there and I know I finished him through his body,” he continued. “I think he might have been a little bit surprised by it but it wasn’t an aggressive hit. He looked fine at the end when he was yelling at me from the bench and wooing, just a hockey play.”
Wilson said that Marchessault told him “good hit” after he climbed to this feet following the collision, but that wasn’t the sentiment in the Golden Knights dressing room after their win. Vegas Coach Gerard Gallant said he thought it was a late hit and he thought it should’ve been a major penalty rather than a minor one; Marchessault himself had a stern opinion of the play.
“I never saw it coming. He hits me on the blindside,” Marchessault said. “It’s a little late. It’s not really my decision. The league’s going to take care of it.”
Said Vegas forward Ryan Reaves: “It’s late. It’s late. It’s just Wilson doing what Wilson does.”
Wilson also provides Washington with offense, including Monday night, when he scored his fourth goal of the postseason to keep the Capitals within striking distance against the up-tempo Golden Knights.
The first four seasons of Wilson’s career painted him as a bruiser looking to fight and hit, and not much else. He never reached 10 goals despite twice playing a full 82-game season. Then Wilson flashed his offensive potential in last spring’s playoffs, and that dripped into this past regular season as he climbed up the lineup.
He had his best year yet, with career-highs in goals (14) and assists (21), and often found himself with Alex Ovechkin on the Capitals’ top line. Even as Capitals Coach Barry Trotz cycled different centers next to Ovechkin throughout the season, Wilson became a fixture opposite the Capitals’ star winger and has skated with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ovechkin for the entire postseason — when he has not been suspended. Wilson’s evolution is a bridge between two of the Capitals’ identities — opportunistic on offense, brutally physical all over the ice — and both were present from the start of Game 1.
“You always have a reputation,” Wilson said. “When you play, obviously when you play my physical style you’re going to build up a reputation. I trust myself. I try and play. I play the game hard. It’s my job to bring that energy and that physicality.”
But that mentality also brought a fresh controversy after Game 1. Washington Coach Barry Trotz appeared confident he wouldn’t lose Wilson to suspension, however. When Trotz was asked if he thought Wilson would be available for Game 2 on Wednesday, he simply replied: “I do.”