PITTSBURGH — Within the walls of PPG Paints Arena, Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson’s name has surfaced often. He’s jeered in most rival rinks around the league, but Wilson’s presence in Pittsburgh seems to transcend fans’ understandable hatred. The Capitals and the Penguins have long had a rivalry headlined by superstars Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby and Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeni Malkin, but over the past year especially, Wilson has become a central character for how often Pittsburgh’s own general manager has referenced him.
Wilson was the subject of considerable scrutiny in the teams’ playoff series last season after he was suspended three games for an illegal check to the head of Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese. A physical player, Wilson had also knocked out defenseman Brian Dumoulin for a game during that second-round matchup, and Pittsburgh General Manager Jim Rutherford said Wilson “couldn’t run quick enough to get away from” 6-foot-7 blueliner Jamie Oleksiak. In Wilson’s first game against the Penguins this season, he responded to Rutherford’s comments with a one-punch knockout of Oleksiak less than a minute into the game.
Oleksiak was concussed by the blow, and the Penguins traded him to the Dallas Stars in January. Rutherford had some things to say about Wilson then, too. “All I know is, in that fight, Wilson didn’t even give Oleksiak a chance to get his gloves off,” Rutherford told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The Penguins have since added big defenseman Erik Gudbranson, who is a candidate to challenge Wilson along with forward Garrett Wilson.
“I try not to pay attention to that stuff,” Wilson said. “Our job is to go out there to play the game, and the rest of the stuff will take care of itself. ... You’ve got social media and you’ve got lots of media coverage. I just go out there and try to play, and whatever they want to say is fine.”
It’s highly unusual for a general manager to talk about a player not on his team this much, but Wilson has been a recurring talking point in the Pittsburgh locker room as well. Penguins captain Sidney Crosby weighed in when Wilson was suspended to start the season for an illegal check to the head of St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist, and center Matt Cullen was critical of the NHL’s appeals process when Wilson’s suspension was eventually reduced from 20 games to 14. To be fair to Crosby, Cullen and Rutherford, they’re simply responding to reporters’ queries, and for Wilson, it could be a point of pride that he’s on their minds.
“You never really know what they’re thinking,” Wilson said. “I would be surprised if they’re going out for the game thinking about me. There’s other guys in this room. ... What people don’t realize is that you’ve got Brooks Orpik, you’ve got [T.J. Oshie], you’ve got a number of guys that battle extremely hard every night, and it’s a team game. The reason we had success last year is because we were hard to play against last year as a team. Whatever they take away from that, whatever they want to talk about, we’re not worried about that in here.”
That the Capitals’ physicality played such a large part in their Stanley Cup win has caused teams around the NHL to shift toward that model, the Penguins included. Along with adding Gudbranson, Pittsburgh got heavier with the additions of Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad, both acquired in a midseason trade with the Florida Panthers.
This will be the final meeting of the regular season between the Capitals and the Penguins, but it’s the first since both clubs tweaked their rosters for the run up to the playoffs. Washington is in first place in the Metropolitan Division with 89 points while Pittsburgh is the Eastern Conference’s first wild-card team with 83 points.
“It always takes on a little bit of a life of its own, these type of games,” Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said. “We’ll see how it goes, but we’ll be ready for their best for sure tonight."