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For one fan base at least in Capitals-Penguins series, Tom Wilson is a big hit

Tom Wilson has been in the middle of the action all too often for irate Penguins fans. The Capitals defend their teammate and enjoy an edge in the series.
Tom Wilson has been in the middle of the action all too often for irate Penguins fans. The Capitals defend their teammate and enjoy an edge in the series. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

PITTSBURGH — The blood had barely hit the ice before the boos came down, and when the fans at PPG Paints Arena realized who had caused the damage, they wailed like 18,634 members of a 13th-century Scottish army. One of their own, Pittsburgh Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese, was struggling to get up from the ice, and when he did he could only bend at the waist, barely able to skate. The man who put him there was already on “Wanted” posters on telephone poles around this town: Tom Wilson.

This is life on the edge in the NHL, and particularly in the Stanley Cup playoffs, where hits live in super slo-mo and the men who deliver them must justify each blow. Wilson entered this season as an important but easily overlooked piece of the Washington Capitals. He now finds himself, after the Capitals’ come-from-behind 4-3 victory in Game 3, on the minds and lips of everyone who cares, even casually, about this second-round series.

Alex Ovechkin scored the game-winner late in the third. And yet the obvious villain is Tom Wilson. Go figure.

Capitals-Penguins Game 3: Ovechkin goal, Wilson hit gives Washington 2-1 series lead

“At times,” veteran Washington defenseman Brooks Orpik said earlier Tuesday, “he has to straddle that line a little bit.”

The line, which probably falls right along the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, looks something like this: On one side (north), Wilson is a dirty, good-for-nuthin’ goon who should have been suspended for Game 3 because of his high hit on Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin back in Washington, and now must be suspended for Thursday’s Game 4 because of the shoulder he laid into Aston-Reese in the second period.

Pittsburgh Coach Mike Sullivan said afterward that Aston-Reese had suffered a broken jaw and a concussion. He was, therefore, blunt.

“At some point,” Sullivan said, “we would hope that the league might do something.”

Yet on the other side of that line (south), Wilson is a top-six forward who plays on the same line as Ovechkin, for goodness sake, not some thug who needs to be removed from the lineup. The hit, from the viewpoint of the Caps’ bench:

“Looked like shoulder-to-shoulder,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. “But I don’t know.”

“To me,” Washington Coach Barry Trotz said, “it was a hard hockey hit.”

What rankled the Penguins more, though, was Wilson, back on the bench, laughing at the proceedings.

“At the end of the day, I respect what kind of game he plays,” Penguins veteran Kris Letang said. “But you don’t laugh at somebody getting hurt. You just don’t do that.”

Wilson wasn’t made available to reporters after the game, so we couldn’t ask what all the yuks were about. To me, though, this seems to be a defense mechanism, Wilson’s way of shrugging off the taunts of opposing players when he lays one of their men out. If he’s laughing, he’s not getting sucked into the fray, and if he’s not getting sucked into the fray, he’s not hurting his team.

Put all that aside. Penguins fans really need to hear Wilson’s self-assessment of his game.

“I’ve always prided myself on being an honest player,” Wilson said earlier Tuesday.

Up here: Laughs and jeers. Back home: Yeah, sounds about right.

What we have here is a 6-foot-4, 218-pound truck who believes he has worked to change his game from those days four years ago when he clawed his way onto the roster because he would check anything that moved and feared none of the things he checked. The NHL, we’re told over and over, is getting younger and faster. Implied: It’s getting cleaner, too. Wilson, though, could have played in any era, be it with the Broad Street Bullies or in the heyday of the old black-and-blue Norris Division.

“He’s a unique player,” Trotz said. “There’s very few Tom Wilsons in the league.”

Now, though, Wilson is more established, and the Caps have given him more responsibility. He’s 24, no fourth-line afterthought, and his actions have serious consequences. They had consequences for Dumoulin, who returned for Game 3 after Wilson’s hit — a combo job with Ovechkin — knocked him out of Game 2. They had consequences for Aston-Reese, who flung his glove at the Caps’ bench as he limped off after Wilson’s left shoulder demolished him midway through the second period Tuesday.

Wilson is aware of all that. On Tuesday, following the Capitals’ morning skate, he talked about the hit on Dumoulin, describing it as “an unfortunate hockey play.” With that, the NHL agreed. Dumoulin’s head had moved just before Wilson arrived with a thud, and therefore the collision was inevitable.

Find someone who agrees with that along any of the three rivers here, and I’ll buy you a pierogi. But it’s worth hearing Wilson out.

“Everyone’s human,” Wilson said. “I play a physical style, and that’s going to bring more attention to that type of thing. . . . There’s going to be collisions in hockey. It’s one of the fastest games in the world, and we’re talking tenths of a second.”

Not to mention, his central argument: He knows his reputation, and he wants to shake it.

“I’ve changed my game a lot over the last couple of years,” he said.

That’s true. He has earned more ice time — a career-high 15:59 per game — because he offers a nice counterbalance to Ovechkin and center Evgeny Kuznetsov. More ice time brought more production; he had never scored more than seven goals in a season before netting 14 this year.

But reputations are hard to shake, and Wilson’s play didn’t always suggest a fundamental difference in his line of thinking. Consider that with all his offensive career highs, his penalty minutes skyrocketed as well. It wasn’t just that he set a career high with 187, because with more time on the ice comes more opportunity to commit infractions. It was that only two players in the league — Wilson and Florida’s Michael Haley — had more than 126 penalty minutes.

And so we are left with moments like Tuesday night’s. “It’s a high hit,” Sullivan said, and with that there can be no argument. Wilson came with his left shoulder.

“Both guys are bracing for it,” Trotz said. “It was shoulder-to-shoulder, and he just blew through him.”

That last portion also can’t be debated: Wilson blew through him. The evaluation, from the league’s perspective, will be whether that shoulder made initial and primary contact with Aston-Reese’s head, or whether Wilson’s shoulder nailed that of Aston-Reese before it plowed through to his head, plus whether Wilson left his feet to deliver the blow. Watch it in real time, and it’s impossible to say. Slow it down, and it’s still hard to tell whether Wilson’s skates are still in contact with the playing surface when his shoulder nailed Aston-Reese.

Either way, there was blood on the ice. Now, where it concerns Wilson and Penguins fans, there is blood in the water. The chants of “Wil-son sucks! Wil-son sucks!” rang through the building before play resumed. Each time Wilson touched the puck the rest of the game, he heard it.

They have long booed Ovechkin here, and after that remarkable goal — knocking his own rebound out of midair with 67 remaining — there’s reason to ride him anew. But the conversation in this series now surrounds Wilson, his style, and whether he’ll get away with it.

“How do you break a jaw,” tweeted Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, “when it’s just ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’?”

And away from the thunder of the hits Wilson is delivering, the Capitals now have a lead in this series. Wednesday, we’ll find out — yet again — if Wilson is suspended. Thursday, the Caps will play to put a stranglehold on the series — with or without their resident thug/hero (depending on where you live).

Read more:

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