As Tom Wilson sat in the penalty box Saturday night and watched the Toronto Maple Leafs take the lead on a power-play goal, he had a moment of clarity. Whether or not he agreed with the double minor that put him there and landed the Washington Capitals in that position, Wilson acknowledged he had let his emotions get the better of him.
Capitals Coach Barry Trotz agreed, and he benched Wilson for the rest of the game. If not for Nicklas Backstrom’s tying goal with less than a second left, Washington would’ve lost the game because of Wilson’s roughing penalty that put the Capitals down a man in the third period.
“That’s just kind of the last straw for me, I think, to realize I can’t engage anymore,” Wilson said. “I learned my lesson.”
This would’ve been a predictable mistake by Wilson in his first two seasons. Then, he was mainly a fourth-line power forward and the team’s enforcer. But Wilson has tried this season to be penalized less, wanting to draw penalties with his physical play rather than land in the penalty box because of it. This came with a changing role for Wilson, whom the organization envisioned moving up in the lineup.
Trotz didn’t want Wilson to completely shed his bruising style of play. What he wanted was for Wilson to be smarter about it. Trotz even told Wilson to be more “edgy” before that game against the Maple Leafs.
Herein lies the dilemma with Wilson: What the Capitals like about his physical game can occasionally backfire. He started the season on the third line, where he was able to draw penalties against opponents’ top players. But a crowded Washington forward corps has since put Wilson back on the fourth line.
“It’s a fine line I’m asking him to walk all of the time,” Trotz said.
Wilson didn’t get called for his first penalty of the season until the Capitals’ seventh game, and he’s had just 14 penalty minutes this season. As a rookie, he had 151. Last season, he led the team with 172.
Things escalated Saturday when Wilson and Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf exchanged words before a faceoff in the third period. As soon as the puck dropped, Phaneuf slammed his stick against Wilson’s wrists, to which Wilson responded by putting his stick against Phaneuf’s chest and pushing him back into the glass.
Both got unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and took their spots in the penalty box while the Capitals and Maple Leafs played four-on-four.
It was a favorable trade for Washington as Wilson was playing on the fourth line and the exchange took Phaneuf, a top defenseman, off the ice for two minutes.
But what started as arguably a good play for the Capitals set the stage for what happened on Wilson’s next shift. Wilson and top-line Toronto center Nazem Kadri got tangled up, and both slammed into the boards, then proceeded to yank each other around and tussle. Kadri appeared to be skating back and away from Wilson, who then reengaged by putting Kadri in a headlock.
Kadri received a minor penalty for roughing, but Wilson was slapped with a double minor, which put the Maple Leafs on the power play, and they scored to take the lead. Wilson didn’t absolve himself from wrongdoing, but he thought his reputation as an enforcer, especially next to a skilled forward like Kadri, influenced the referee’s decision to give him the extra minor.
“You look at that and you see Wilson versus Kadri,” Wilson said. “Kadri is known as a pest around the league, but he scores lots of goals and stuff. If the ref has to choose one to give the extra minor to, they’re probably going to choose me. I’ve just got to be smarter.”
When Backstrom returned to the lineup after missing the first three games in the wake of offseason hip surgery, Trotz kept Wilson on the third line and put Andre Burakovsky on the fourth line. At the end of last season, Trotz said he thought Wilson was ready for responsibility beyond the fourth line. But Burakovsky is a skilled winger better suited for more playing time with other skilled linemates, so after that experiment lasted six games, Trotz moved Burakovsky up and Wilson down.
Trotz indicated it wasn’t a permanent change, but that seemingly slight lineup shuffle has caused a noticeable shift in Wilson’s role.
Take Saturday, for instance, when Wilson had seven hits in the game, returning a physical identity to the fourth line that it had been lacking with Burakovsky there. Wilson said he had been playing “on the brink” of taking a penalty, though he had kept it clean. But that style of play can reach a boiling point with referees, when “50 minutes into the game, maybe they’re a little bit tired of it,” Wilson said.
“It’s tough nowadays to play that way and stay on that brink of penalty or not penalty,” Wilson said. “Often, if you play between the whistles, it’s going to be fine. . . . I just can’t engage with those guys, and hopefully, it doesn’t happen again.”