Maybe the way Tom Wilson could most appropriately reenter the Washington Capitals’ lineup was exactly how he did Tuesday night in St. Paul, Minn.: score a goal as he charged the net, be penalized for how he conducted himself on that same play, and then drop the gloves and fight as he awaited a faceoff in the next period.
The major news Tuesday, as far as the Capitals are concerned, is that their stalwart right winger had his suspension reduced by an arbitrator from 20 games to 14. Because the infraction for which Wilson was suspended occurred in the preseason, and because the Caps played their 17th game Tuesday against Minnesota, Wilson was thus eligible to jump right back into the lineup against the Minnesota Wild.
What he helped deliver is what the Caps badly needed — a 5-2 victory over former coach Bruce Boudreau that opened a four-game road trip in the right fashion, put behind two disappointing home losses when Wilson’s absence was felt, and gave backup goalie Pheonix Copley his third straight victory.
“It was a good day and good to get back in there,” Wilson said. “It’s tough watching the guys play, but once you get back and get in there, get in the room, get in the game-day routine, there’s no better feeling.”
On any other night, the focus might have fallen to Washington defenseman Dmitry Orlov, who scored twice and assisted on another goal — even as Coach Todd Reirden switched up the defensive pairings, continuing to move Orlov away from his traditional partner, Matt Niskanen. Orlov’s snipe on an assist from Lars Eller opened the scoring 6:33 into the first period, and he then set up Wilson on a rush to the net in the final minute of the same frame.
Even with Orlov’s production, that play setting up Wilson best exemplified the night.
“It’s always nice to see a teammate come from suspension or injury,” Orlov said. “So it’s nice to see him, and he responded today.”
Wilson’s absence following his 20-game suspension — which resulted not just from his hit on Oskar Sundqvist of the St. Louis Blues in a meaningless exhibition game but also from Wilson’s history with the NHL’s disciplinary department — was palpable as the Capitals meandered through the first fifth of their season, kind of indifferent after winning the Stanley Cup in June.
But when arbitrator Shyam Das reduced Wilson’s suspension to 14 games — he missed 16 games and will get paid for those two extra games — Washington received a jolt. Reirden immediately inserted Wilson into his old spot on the right wing opposite Alex Ovechkin, with Evgeny Kuznetsov in the middle. Suddenly, a month-and-a-half of Reirden mixing and matching was over. The rest of the Capitals’ forwards thus fell into place, and the offense clicked.
Less than a week ago, the Capitals secured what seemed to be a ship-righting 2-1 victory over Pittsburgh at home. But they followed that up with a 2-1 loss to Columbus and a 4-1 setback to Arizona — both at Capital One Arena. Poor penalty killing was a problem, but so was the lack of offense. Wilson isn’t a premier goal scorer, but the more those with the Capitals watched their team without the forward they signed to a six-year extension over the summer, the more they realized why they committed the dollars and the years: Wilson’s mere presence meant something not just to Kuznetsov and Ovechkin, but it meant something up and down the lineup.
So here was Wilson, in the final minute of the first period, charging down the middle of the ice. Orlov carried the puck in deep down the left wing, and he flung it toward the middle. There, Wilson did whatever he could to get whatever part of his body or equipment on it. The puck got behind Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk. But Wilson also got into Dubnyk.
There was, then, double reason for a whistle: Wilson’s goal, which would not be overturned, but also his collision with the Wild goaltender. Wilson thus was simultaneously celebrated and punished — scoring the marker that put Washington up 2-0, but being sent to the penalty box for goalie interference.
The Capitals, though, killed the penalty — a relief after their woes in that area against Arizona. They got a goal from Andre Burakovsky to go up 3-0 in the second, then finished it with goals from T.J. Oshie and Orlov in the third. Copley saved 26 of the 28 shots he faced.
“It felt good to put together a good 60 minutes,” Wilson said.
The win pulled the Capitals even with Philadelphia and Carolina for fourth place in the Metropolitan Division. They face Winnipeg on Wednesday night in the second game of this four-game road trip. Unlike the previous 16 games, they will go into those games with Tom Wilson in the lineup.