Wil­son’s evo­lu­tion has been re­ward­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL - BY IS­ABELLE KHURSHUDYAN is­abelle.khurshudyan@wash­post.com

los an­ge­les — San Jose Sharks de­fense­man Bren­den Dil­lon kept his eyes on the puck as it sailed to­ward him. He reached his hand up to bat it down, but be­fore he could get con­trol of it, a 6-foot-4, 217-pound fig­ure knocked him out of the play. This was the kind of big open-ice hit for which Wash­ing­ton for­ward Tom Wil­son has be­come known, but there was a pur­pose be­hind it — to re­move Dil­lon from the ac­tion so the Cap­i­tals could re­gain pos­ses­sion.

Wil­son’s point pro­duc­tion this sea­son (six goals, 10 as­sists in 66 games en­ter­ing Satur­day) is on pace to roughly match last year’s, but he’s made strides in other ways. Wil­son has found a way to bal­ance an in­tim­i­dat­ing phys­i­cal­ity with sit­u­a­tional aware­ness. Lik­ing what he has seen lately, Cap­i­tals Coach Barry Trotz pro­moted him to the top-six for­ward corps for Satur­day’s game in Los An­ge­les, putting him on a line along­side cen­ter Evgeny Kuznetsov and left wing Alex Ovechkin.

“He’s play­ing hockey, and I say that with all due re­spect,” Trotz said. “He’s not look­ing for the big hit. If it’s there, he’ll do that. I think ear­lier in his ca­reer, to stay in the lineup, he was look­ing for the big hit. He was look­ing for that forecheck and that phys­i­cal­ity. I think he’s just play­ing, and if it’s there, then he re­sponds to it and those sit­u­a­tions. It’s just him ma­tur­ing as a young pro.”

Wil­son still leads Wash­ing­ton in hits with 194 en­ter­ing Satur­day, but he has tried to be more selective this sea­son. That has helped him stay out of the penalty box — he’s on pace for the fewest penalty min­utes of his ca­reer by a con­sid­er­able mar­gin — and in turn, he has been an ef­fec­tive penalty-killer all sea­son. Trotz has oc­ca­sion­ally moved Wil­son up the lineup this year be­cause his phys­i­cal­ity can cre­ate space for his line­mates.

Hit­ting can be a tricky bal­ance be­cause a player looks to do so when he doesn’t have pos­ses­sion. Wil­son has been more strate­gic this sea­son, uti­liz­ing hits to force turnovers.

“I haven’t changed my game a ton,” Wil­son said. “I think most of it has been puck pos­ses­sion. When I have the puck on my stick, I’m mak­ing the right plays. I’m hav­ing more time with the puck and hav­ing more con­fi­dence. When I’m forecheck­ing, I’m try­ing to go more stick-on-puck a lit­tle bit, but I’m still try­ing to fin­ish my check.”

On Thurs­day night, the Cap­i­tals’ fourth line of Wil­son, Daniel Win­nik and cen­ter Jay Bea­gle was ar­guably the team’s best. Win­nik scored the first goal of the game. Op­po­site Wil­son was for­mer team­mate Joel Ward, whose style of play Wash­ing­ton Gen­eral Man­ager Brian MacLel­lan has urged Wil­son to em­u­late. The two were close as team­mates and stay in touch, and while Wil­son hasn’t reached the 20-goal of­fen­sive pro­duc­tion Ward has had at points in his ca­reer, other as­pects of his game model Ward’s.

“I think the parts of his game that they kind of want me to em­u­late are doable things,” Wil­son said. “Win­ning bat­tles along the wall, I think my board bat­tles in the of­fen­sive end have im­proved a lot this year. That leads to puck pos­ses­sion, and that leads to more of­fense.”

When Ward was with Wash­ing­ton, he of­ten moved around in the lineup, oc­ca­sion­ally a right wing to com­ple­ment Ovechkin and Nick­las Back­strom. Trotz is start­ing to use Wil­son in a sim­i­lar fash­ion. With the Cap­i­tals com­ing off back-to-back reg­u­la­tion losses for the first time since Dec. 1 and Trotz feel­ing like his for­ward groups have gone “stale,” Wil­son was part of Trotz’s shake-up. His bruis­ing pres­ence can open up more ice for Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, and he can serve as a net-front pres­ence on that line.

He also has earned the in­crease in ice time.

“I think Tom’s played re­ally well,” Trotz said. “You’ve got a shooter, you’ve got some big bod­ies, and you’ve got some pretty good skaters on that line.”

GE­OFF BURKE/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Cap­i­tals for­ward Tom Wil­son has har­nessed his phys­i­cal­ity, earn­ing praise from Coach Barry Trotz — and an in­crease in play­ing time.

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