The Washington Post
Just out of reach
The Caps aren’t themselves without Wilson in uniform
Here’s a reminder, as the Washington Capitals head back to Florida all knotted up after four games: At some point, if this is going to be a successful spring, they’re going to need Tom Wilson. And badly.
There’s not a specific moment in Monday night’s harrowing 3-2 overtime loss to the top-seeded Florida Panthers when you could have looked and said: “See! There! That’s where Tom Wilson could have flipped this game around!” Okay, well, maybe on the game-winner not quite five minutes into the extra period, when Florida forward Carter Verhaeghe buried a rebound past Capitals goalie Ilya Samsonov. Might Wilson have laid a body on Verhaeghe?
That’s kind of the point: Wilson does so many things in so many aspects of so many hockey games, he could have affected all of what played out Monday night. His absence doesn’t define what just became a best-of-three series — with Florida again holding home-ice advantage. But it decidedly colors it. For the Caps, those are dark hues.
“Obviously, he’s one of the leaders in the locker room and on the ice,” captain Alex Ovechkin said Monday night. “But it’s [the playoffs]. Everything can happen. That’s why we have different players who take responsibility — and take his spot and play those tough minutes.”
That’s the only answer: Someone else has to do what Wilson might have done. He has played all of 91 seconds in this series. In that span — three shifts in Game 1 — he drew a penalty and scored a goal. How he might be leaving his imprint on these games had he not suffered a lower-body injury in that first period a week ago is something the Capitals can’t worry about. But darn if the mind doesn’t wander there.
“Right now, it still remains day-to-day with him,” Coach Peter Laviolette said. “I understand that’s not the answer you guys want.”
It’s the answer we’re going to get. List the three players the Capitals could least afford to lose in a playoff series. It’s an interesting exercise between now and Wednesday’s Game 5. Ovechkin takes the lead, particularly when national storylines are considered. But can you make that list for the Caps and not include Wilson? No way.
Ovechkin is the face and the icon, the character who draws the eye with each shift. Maybe John Carlson, because he is the anchor of the defense and the point on the power play. Maybe Evgeny Kuznetsov, because he is looking more like his 2018 postseason self and not the empty sweater of the past three springs.
But any opponent’s scouting report contains a lengthy and intricate account of how to deal with Wilson, the Swiss army knife who is, in some ways, the Capitals’ identity.
That has been increasingly true over the course of the seasons since the Stanley Cup win as more characters have moved on and fewer have remained. When the Caps won the Cup in the spring of 2018, Wilson was 24 — with five years of experience but still a baby when, for example, Brooks Orpik roamed the dressing room.
In the years since, even as the external eye on the Capitals has focused mostly on Ovechkin’s climb up the all-time goals list — and the playoffs have ended early — Wilson’s influence on and stature in the Caps’ dressing room has only grown. Because he skates so fast and uses his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame to annihilate people, he has been cast as a villain around the league. It’s an outdated view. Within his own team, he is deemed essential. Ask 31 other general managers if they would take him. The answer would be unanimous.
“There’s no question you miss a guy like Tom in a series like this that’s physical, that’s full of hits,”
Laviolette said. “He’s a big body. He plays a lot of minutes, plays a lot of different positions.”
Even as he has developed into a top-six forward who has more than 20 goals in the past three seasons with more than 60 games, his physicality still defines him, which is another reason his absence feels important now. Through so many heavy hits, and even some subsequent suspensions, the organization has always supported him — not out of duty but because the franchise believes he has been wronged, set up as an example. It is a measure of his standing within his own organization that a player who can be seen as a pariah in so many other markets is put forth as such an upstanding citizen here.
About that reputation: Wilson has never played more minutes per game than he did this season — 18:35 a night. Part of it is being smarter. In 47 games of last year’s pandemic-shortened season, Wilson racked up 96 penalty minutes, leading the NHL in that category for the first time. This season, in 78 games, he logged only 98 minutes in the box — a drop from more than two minutes per night to 1 minute 15 seconds.
That means so much more time he can spend on the ice — time that is being covered by others in this series. Wilson plays in all situations: on the second power-play unit, on the first penalty kill, when the Capitals are trying to protect a late lead and the opponent brings on an extra skater. That’s how Florida got Sam Reinhart’s equalizer with two minutes and change remaining in regulation Monday night.
What if Wilson had been around?
For so much of Game 4, the Caps so bottled up the Panthers — as they have for so much of the series — that it might be easy to forget that they’re shorthanded, and significantly. Without Wilson, Washington has somehow kneecapped Florida’s power play. A unit that ranked fifth in the NHL during the regular season is 0 for 13 in this series — nearly a period and a half with the man advantage and nothing to show for it.
Washington’s power play, on which Wilson had 10 points this season, looked disorganized during a key five-on-three stretch of the second period. But T. J. Oshie scored a power-play goal Monday night, and the Capitals’ 29 percent success rate in the series is more than passable. Do they palpably miss Wilson there?
The series is even. Wilson hasn’t really played. This is doable. It’s just hard.
“When we won the Cup, we miss him; we miss Backy,” Ovechkin said, referring to the second-round series against Pittsburgh in which Wilson was suspended and top center Nicklas Backstrom was hurt. “And, how I say, everybody was into the game. Right now, the same thing. We’re not panicking.”
Late Monday night, Wilson walked from the family room at Capital One Arena out toward the garage. His teammates were still showering. He was dressed in a suit. At some point, he needs to be able to wear a sweater, or the Capitals — in a spring suddenly filled with anticipation — won’t be the best versions of themselves.