Tom Wilson's blend of skill and physicality makes him one of the Capitals' top players, but one wrong move could cost him and the team in the playoffs. (Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports)

Tom Wilson will admit to being a little worried at first – that after he built his career playing one way, stripping away some of the physicality would make him a lesser player. Four suspensions from the NHL’s Department of Player Safety though – the last of which caused him to miss the first 16 games of the 2018-19 season – meant he had to change something if he wanted to stay on the ice, where the Washington Capitals need him most in the upcoming Stanley Cup playoffs.

But while his critics have characterized his career around that single, violent aspect of his game, he never saw himself as one-dimensional. He’s a strong skater, his shot has never been better, and injecting some caution into his checking didn’t mean he had to get rid of it altogether.

“If it’s a skating game and Coach needs me to skate, I can go out there and create momentum like that,” Wilson said. “If there are six penalty kills, you can go out there and try and help through the PK. If you need a goal, hopefully it’s a night where you’re able to chip in offensively. Hockey is such a game of versatility that you hope as a player you can chip in different ways. That’s been a focus of mine since I came in, to be well-balanced. I’m not just going to depend on my physical play.”

For 63 regular season games, Wilson was the model power forward, still physical with his 6-foot-4, 218-pound frame but better at picking his spots to deliver a big blow. Wilson averaged a career-high 18:09 of ice time playing exclusively on one of the Capitals’ top two lines, and despite playing in the fewest games of his career, he finished with career highs in goals (22) and points (40). But the playoffs are when everything gets ramped up, including the physicality.

With the higher stakes, it will be the ultimate test of how far Wilson’s game has come and whether it has really changed. Given the league’s policy of continually escalating suspension lengths based on repeat offenses, earning one now would have the potential of sidelining him for the duration of the playoffs.

“We haven’t had one question from the league at all this year," Capitals Coach Todd Reirden said. "That’s been nice and something that he deserves major credit for. But it’s an ever-growing process for him. He’s going to be going through his first playoff with that type of thought in mind.”

“I think just the nature of the game is more physical,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said of postseason play. “People finish their checks more. People play stronger, harder. And that is his game, so he is going to excel in it.”

After serving two suspensions during the 2017 preseason, Wilson similarly went the whole regular season without drawing the ire of the league, but then earned its scrutiny in the playoffs. In a second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Wilson’s hit on Zach Aston-Reese, which broke the latter’s jaw, led to a three-game suspension for an illegal check to the head. The Department of Player Safety had closely reviewed two of Wilson’s hits before that one. This postseason, he will need to use more caution on the ice than is natural while maintaining some of his edge to make opponents more reactive and tentative when he’s on the ice.

“I think it’s just his approach is a little bit different,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik, who also had to adjust his game after multiple suspensions. “Tom knows the reason he gets a lot of open ice and chances is because of how physical he is, kind of that intimidation factor. …

“The game is so fast, and guys are less aware and don’t protect themselves as well anymore. That’s just kind of the way they’re coached coming up, so more of the onus is on you not putting yourself in situations where, maybe you don’t intend for anything to go wrong, but if there’s ever a chance of something going wrong just because of the position the guy puts himself in, you can’t even take a chance.”

Wilson has grown exasperated with the constant talk of his rap sheet, even as he has gotten some praise from George Parros, the head of the league’s Department of Player Safety. "I think Tom has figured out how to play the game and stay off our radar. … We’ve seen clips of him delivering good clean hits and laying off hits that might have gotten him in trouble before,” Parros told ESPN.

Wilson has consciously avoided explosive open-ice collisions, but he makes his mark on the forecheck, where he can wear down opposing defensemen over the course of a playoff series and also force a turnover in the moment. Wilson still averaged the most hits per game (3.2) on the Capitals this season.

“That’s something he can’t shy away from, that part of his game, because if he does that, he kind of loses his edge and effectiveness,” Orpik said.

And as the playoffs begin Thursday night, Wilson will have to continue to walk that line.

“The other night, I had nine hits," Wilson said. "It’s not that I’m turning away from hits, it’s maybe just being a little more careful in such a fast game, and the game is changing a little bit, so there are opportunities that go on out there. You’ve got to make sure that you’re trying to control the outcome as best you can. ... It’s going to be a war, and people love playoff hockey because of that. I’m not going to be shying away from hits. I’ve just got to make sure I’m doing them clean.”

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