Wilson in particular has been the focus of some of the bad blood and drama between the two clubs. The last time he played against them was in Game 3 of the teams' second-round playoff series, when his forceful collision with forward Zach Aston-Reese broke the latter’s jaw and gave him a concussion. Wilson was suspended three games by the NHL Department of Player Safety for an illegal check to the head, supplemental discipline he still disputes, so he was out the rest of that series, and another suspension to start the season caused him to miss Washington’s first two meetings against Pittsburgh this year.
He’ll be in the lineup when the Capitals play the Penguins on Wednesday night, so is he expecting any special treatment?
“It doesn’t really matter,” Wilson said. “That’s part of hockey. We’ll deal with it as it goes. They’re in need of points, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re playing hockey tonight. If there’s extracurriculars, we’ll handle it. ... We’re focused on this side; they’re big points for us, too, so we’ve got to make sure we’re focused on our game plan, and disciplined. We’ve been taking a lot of penalties, so we’re going to try to focus on the hockey aspect for sure.”
Those sentiments appeared to be echoed in the Pittsburgh locker room as well.
“Whenever we play Washington, there’s definitely a lot of emotions and stuff, but I think we’re just going to stick to our game plan, what we’ve got to do to win,” defenseman Jamie Oleksiak said to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “Every point’s huge, especially now. We’ve just got to have that mentality in this game.”
Both teams are playing better and truer to their expected form since their last meeting; Washington is in first place in the Metropolitan Division while Pittsburgh is just out of the playoff picture with 36 points, two short of the third-place New York Islanders. And while Wilson didn’t play in those first two regular season meetings — the Capitals lost the first in overtime but won the second one — he’s remained a topic of discussion in the Penguins' locker room.
After Wilson received a fourth suspension of his career before the season, for an illegal check to the head of Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist, a former Penguins player, Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby was asked for his thoughts on Wilson.
"You also understand there are instances where guys get hit and it’s part of the game. It happens fast and it’s intense out there,” Crosby told reporters. “When a guy does it a handful of times, you start to question what the intent is.”
Then last month, when Wilson’s suspension was reduced from a 20-game ban to 14 games by a neutral arbitrator, veteran center Matt Cullen told reporters, “I don’t think it’s a good look for our league, for our game to need to go to appeals. You’d like the headlines to be about the play on the ice and the players, not the other [stuff] going on outside of the game.”
“I think most guys probably don’t love that — that it got reduced in that manner as far as going to appeal after appeal," Cullen said.
Maybe enough time has passed since Wilson played against Pittsburgh that any lingering bad feelings won’t play a role on the ice Wednesday night. Then again, when it comes to the Capitals and the Penguins, “there’s always a little something extra there,” as Coach Todd Reirden put it.
“It’s taken on a different look to it now because we’re the defending champs now, so we know how that feels to be in their shoes and how much you’re trying to gauge where your team’s at,” Reirden said. “'If we ever want to win a Stanley Cup, we’ve got to get through those guys,' were things we talked about and went through in prior years. Being able to finally get through them last year was a huge part of us being able to win the Cup in the end. That’s one of those watermarks, in terms of your team growing and finally getting past something that’s been in your way.”
Brooks Orpik targeting a post-Christmas return
Defenseman Brooks Orpik hadn’t been on the ice with his teammates since late October, recovering from a right knee scope a month ago as he’s missed the past 22 games. That changed Wednesday morning when he participated in the Capitals' morning skate while donning a non-contact jersey. Reirden said Orpik won’t play in Washington’s next three games, but he’s expected to play shortly after the league’s Christmas break.
The Capitals host the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 27 before playing in Ottawa on Dec. 29. With Orpik out of the lineup, Washington has deployed a young third pairing with rookie Jonas Siegenthaler and Madison Bowey, in his second season.
“He’s a huge part of our team, our leadership group,” Reirden said of Orpik. “Who he is as a person and just being around the guys brings a little energy, so that was nice to have him out there as a little bit of a surprise guest. It’s a good lift for our team.”
Orpik is eight games short of hitting the 1,000-mark, a significant milestone for players.