“He was like, ‘This will be huge for the guys if you can get a couple wins here,’ ” Wilson said this week.
Although Washington is still without Oshie and Kuznetsov, it has Wilson, which has apparently made all the difference. After Friday’s 3-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings at Capital One Arena, in which Wilson had a goal and an assist, the Capitals are 5-1-0 since Wilson returned to the lineup after missing the season’s first 16 games while serving a suspension. Wilson has eight points (three goals and five assists) in six games, and, not coincidentally, the Capitals have won four straight.
“I guess we’ll just say I’m making up for lost time,” Wilson said.
“He’s one of the leaders on the team,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “He bring energy, of course. He bring toughness, and I think when he’s on the ice, the other team gets a little bit afraid because he’s a big boy. He can hit, and right now you can see he’s kind of like [Hall of Famer] Eric Lindros. He can play hard, score goals, make a good assist.”
As the Capitals embark on a two-game trip to New York that begins Saturday afternoon against the Rangers, Oshie won’t be traveling with them. And while Kuznetsov will join the team, considering Washington won’t practice ahead of either game, it’s unlikely he cracks the lineup. The Capitals have compensated with depth scoring — they got a goal, the game-winner, from defenseman Michal Kempny with the third line on the ice Friday — and solid goaltending. In Braden Holtby’s third straight win, he made 31 saves.
With the score tied at 1 going into the third period, forward Devante Smith-Pelly screened Red Wings goaltender Jonathan Bernier, and Kempny’s shot from the left point at 6:38 sailed over Bernier, who didn’t move because he never saw it. Less than two minutes later, Ovechkin’s shot from the right faceoff circle went through Bernier’s legs to give the Capitals a two-goal cushion. It was Ovechkin’s 16th goal of the season.
It was Wilson who carried the puck up the ice and out of Washington’s zone before skipping it to center Nic Dowd, who set up Ovechkin on the rush, and it was Wilson who had tied the game 12:13 into the second period. His eight points through 22 team games are more than his total at the same juncture last season, when he had played 18 games.
Through the first five seasons of his career, Wilson has shown flashes of offensive upside, but he has never averaged more than 0.45 points per game in a season. He’s well over 1.0 this season, and while he’s best known for physical play that has gotten him suspended four times in his career, teammates aren’t too surprised by this recent scoring outburst.
“If you look back a couple of years ago, he was a top pick in the draft,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “People maybe expected this side of him, not the other side.”
“You can obviously notice it,” Holtby said. “The type of player he is, very responsible, high energy and is working hard in all situations. You can tell just in our defensive game from where it was, he has the ability to change a team that way. He’s obviously chipping in offensively, too, but his complete game just brings energy, and it brings that level of accountability through our whole lineup because he shows it in himself.”
The Capitals started slowly against a Red Wings team that had won nine of 11. Defenseman Madison Bowey was whistled for tripping 6:38 into the game, and though Washington survived Detroit’s power play, speedy winger Andreas Athanasiou scored on a pass from Thomas Vanek eight seconds after Bowey’s penalty expired. Through 15 minutes, the Red Wings had 14 shots on goal, and the Capitals managed just one.
But Washington controlled the last five minutes of the period, keeping Detroit from putting any shots on net, and the Capitals seized on that momentum halfway through the second when Wilson ripped a shot from the high slot and then found himself at the center of a celebratory hug again.
“It certainly was a very difficult time for him when he wasn’t playing, especially building on what he was able to accomplish last year on our team and fill in on that first line,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “And to have that taken away from you, that left a mark for sure. His response has been noticeable.”