NEW YORK — The Washington Capitals‘ happy opening-night vibe was mellowed a few hours before game time on Oct. 3, when they learned the NHL suspended Tom Wilson 20 games for an illegal check to the head in a preseason game.
If only they’d know Wilson would arrive this hot out of the gate six weeks later.
Wilson has played just eight games since returning from his suspension, of which he served 16 games after an arbitrator shortened it. He’s already up to six goals — almost halfway to his career high of 14, set last year — and six assists.
Eleven of those 12 points have come during the Capitals‘ current six-game winning streak. Nobody on the team has more points in that span. This is all while two of their top-six forwards have missed the entire streak as they sit out with what are presumed to be concussions.
What happened here? His detractors may not like it, but quite simply: Handing down a lengthy punishment to Wilson only made him stronger.
“Well, I had lots of time,” he quipped after Monday night’s win over the New York Islanders, in which he scored twice and assisted Alex Ovechkin on an empty-net goal.
Putting aside for a moment his history of injuring players with questionable hits, Wilson is known as a physical winger who defends well on the penalty kill and can find the net while skating with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov on the top line. He’s never been seen as a high-skill guy.
Forsythe is in charge of the Capitals‘ power play. Wilson has filled in for T.J. Oshie in the slot position on the first power play unit, and Monday he scored from there — his first power-play tally since his rookie year.
Blais is a part-time player development consultant who sometimes works with the Capitals and their AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears. Nemish is their strength and conditioning coach.
Wilson said he wanted to minimize the readjustment period when he had to get up to speed with a team 16 games into a season.
“That’s part of it, and those guys are behind the scenes but I thank them and I appreciate the time they put in when it was a tough time for me,” Wilson said.
Coach Todd Reirden explained there are certain skills players are better off figuring out in individual practice time than in a team setting.
“The idea in a team practice is to have good execution and not miss the tape on any passes,” Reirden said. “But I think sometimes when you look at the goal (Wilson) scores, it’s maybe not perfect. It’s a little bit in his feet and he has to find a way to one-time it. That’s the type of skill stuff that he worked on in his time away from game action.”
The coach also mentioned Wilson’s improved puck-handling and said that — while he “didn’t change” who he was — he has been more careful with the ferocious hits.
“He’s not put himself in spots where any of his hits are questionable or out of his hands,” Reirden said. “He’s been really smart with that, but still continuing to be the factor that he can be physically.”
Reirden praised how Wilson bounced back after “a real trying 16 games for him” being suspended.
“Mentally, probably even more than physically,” the coach said. “I’m really proud of how he’s responded and a lot of people would’ve let this really drag him down and be in a little bit of a lull for maybe the first 10 games, but he’s played his best hockey. So a lot of credit to him and his character as a person.”
As reporters surrounded him in the visitors’ locker room after his three-point game, Wilson first wanted to talk about how special it was to skate with Nicklas Backstrom on the night he passed Peter Bondra for the second-most points in franchise history.
“I think just playing with good players, you get good looks and eventually they’ll go in,” he said.
The Capitals‘ winning streak has happened without the services of Kuznetsov and Oshie, who both left the Nov. 14 game in Winnipeg with upper-body injuries. Wilson has stepped up immensely in their absences, but he insists it hasn’t been just him.
“I think everyone in this room has done a great job at stepping up. It’s nice when you find the back of the net, but a guy like (Nic Dowd), two big goals (in two games). There’s a lot of guys stepping up right now and you lose two of your best players, two of your key players, it’s opportunity and guys have done a good job at that. We’re finding a way to win.”