Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson was once again the topic of a controversial play in the postseason. During Washington’s 6-4 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, Wilson was assessed a two-minute interference penalty for his open-ice hit on Jonathan Marchessault.
The play happened early in the third period after Marchessault passed the puck to a teammate. Though it was a big hit, there was no contact to the head. Still, Marchessault was put into the concussion protocol but later returned to the game.
After a lengthy huddle among the officials, it was decided that Wilson would only receive a single minor penalty.
Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant and Marchessault both thought the hit was late, and Gallant thought that it should have resulted in a major penalty. Wilson defended the hit, saying it was a hockey play.
It was announced Tuesday that the NHL’s Department of Player Safety would not be reviewing Wilson’s hit, so there would be no suspension as a result of the hit.
Capitals Need Wilson for Success
Formerly a bottom-six player and just thought of as an enforcer for the Capitals, Wilson has blossomed into an important and dangerous offensive weapon. He spent much of the past season playing on Washington’s top line with Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, and really saw his game come into its own.
Wilson set career-highs this season in goals (14), assists (21), and points (35). He has continued that strong play into the playoffs, racking up four goals and nine assists with a plus-8 rating. He has meshed well with the top line and brings a physicality that helps set the tone of games.
He finished the regular season fourth in hits with 250 and leads that category in the postseason with 79. Linemate Alex Ovechkin is second with 70, making the two a difficult pair to deal with on the top line.
Finishing checks and strong forechecking, paired with his offensive skillset, makes Wilson a very unique player. That blend of talent and ability to play tough are traits that any team in the league would gladly take.
Washington needs Wilson in the lineup. When he’s not on the ice, the physicality of the entire team seems to decline. If the Capitals are going to go all the way in the Stanley Cup Final, they need to find a way to keep Wilson disciplined and on the ice, not in the box, or even worse, in street clothes due to a suspension.
Wilson Has a History
Unfortunately for the Caps, Wilson’s game comes at a price.
His physical and aggressive style lends itself to a bevy of controversial hits and penalties. His 187 penalty minutes in the regular season were second in the league. That’s nearly unheard of for a first-line forward. He’s fourth during the postseason with 25 penalty minutes.
Each time Wilson takes a penalty, that’s less time that Washington has use of his skills on offense. Also, he is one of the team’s top penalty killers, so he’s missed greatly when he’s in the box.
Aside from just racking up penalties, Wilson now has a reputation as a big hitter who dangerously toes the line between legal and illegal hits.
Wilson was suspended the first four games to start the 2017-18 season after a preseason boarding hit on Sam Blais of the Blues. Prior to that, he missed two preseason games for a hit on Robert Thomas, also of the Blues.
During the current postseason, Wilson has been the center of three different incidents (not counting the hit on Marchessault). In Round 1 versus Columbus, he got called for a charge that was viewed by the Department of Player Safety, but he didn’t receive a suspension. In Round 2 against the Penguins, he finished his check on Brian Dumoulin in Game 2 and caught him in the head. Wilson was not penalized nor suspended for the hit.
The most talked-about incident featuring Wilson occurred in Game 3 when he checked Zach Aston-Reese into the shoulder and ultimately in the head. Aston-Reese suffered a broken jaw as a result of the hit. Wilson received a three-game suspension.
One has to think that if Wilson were to commit another questionable hit this postseason that the league would certainly take a long look at it. The Caps can’t afford to lose Wilson for the remaining games against the Golden Knights, so he’s going to have to be smarter about how and when he lays his punishing hits.
Barry is the site expert at Victory Bell Rings, covering Penn State football, hockey and basketball. He’s also written about the NHL for RotoWire, Bleacher Report and FanSided. An avid hockey fan, he’s been a Washington Capitals supporter for most of his life.