Philly fans, we have your enemy.
He is 6 foot, 4 inches and 215 pounds of restless energy and, unlike Cheap Trick, he wants you to hate him.
“We don’t want to be liked by them,” Tom Wilson said Tuesday after the Capitals first practice in preparation for their first-round playoff series against the Flyers, which begins Thursday night at Verizon Center on CSN. “Hopefully, we can keep it that way, that they hate our guts.”
Led by defenseman Radko Gudas (304 hits) the Flyers finished fifth in the NHL in hits this season, averaging 27 a game. The Capitals finished 11th in the league at 24 a game.
Both teams ramped it up the last time they played on March 30 in Philadelphia, with the Flyers outhitting the Caps 34-30 in a 2-1 shootout win.
“I think every playoff series is going to be hard-checked and emotional,” said Wilson, who led the Capitals with 253 hits this season. “Look at all the series we played. The Islanders came hard last year. That was kind of my type of hockey. That was a pretty emotional series. The Rangers came hard.
“Philly, they’re not necessarily the toughest team in the league, but they do have that team mentality that they’re tough, from all four lines. The last time we played them they’re slashing our guys, chirping our guys, everyone. It’s going to be emotional and we’ve just got to make sure we let our playing do the talking. They’ve got some emotional guys on that side and we’ll see what happens. You’ve just got to make sure you don’t end up in the penalty box and you don’t take anything away from your team.”
In the four regular season games against the Flyers, the Caps gave Philadelphia 17 power plays. The Caps went on the power play just 10 times. Both teams netted three power-play goals in the four games but several Capitals agreed that if they play undisciplined against the Flyers they’ll be playing into their meaty hands.
As for penalties, the Flyers ranked fourth in the NHL with 966 penalty minutes and tied for ninth with 28 fighting majors, paced by Wayne Simmonds (five). The Caps ranked 20th in penalty minutes with 753 and 22nd in fighting majors with 19, paced by Michael Latta with eight and Wilson with seven.
Wilson introduced himself to Flyers fans on Dec. 17, 2013 (two months after Ray Emery’s assault on Braden Holtby) when he slammed Brayden Schenn into the boards with a ferocious hit behind the net.
“I think I got booed off the ice with a curse word after I hit Brayden Schenn a couple years ago,” Wilson recalled. “I know a lot of the Philly fans didn’t like me ever since then. My first year we had some brawls and that was an emotional year.”
Last spring, it was the fans on Long Island who targeted Wilson after he ended defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky’s career with a clean hit behind the Islanders net.
“Obviously , I’m glad I’m not going back to the Coliseum because there were lots of death threats from those fans. That’s playoffs and that’s just the way people are. It’s so intense.
“You’ve got to respect how into the game the Philly fan base and Islander fan base are. They’re diehard Flyers fans, they wear their hearts on their sleeve. There’s going to be some big hits, some emotion and I know the fans will be there for both teams. That’s part of the fun of it. That’s why playoff time is the best time of the year.”
That’s why Wilson is encouraging Flyers fans to give him all they’ve got.
“It’s a huge compliment if you can have the other team’s fans worried about you and chirping you,” he said. “Ask anyone in the room, that’s a pretty cool feeling. Ask Ovi when he’s getting booed in other teams’ rinks. They’re not booing Ovi because he sucks, they’re booing because he’s one of the best players in the game.”
Wilson also knows this: Playoff series are not won by what is said on or off the ice, but the ability to back up what is said.
“It doesn’t matter that we finished first and won the Presidents’ Trophy,” Wilson said. “Those are all amazing things and huge accomplishments. But it doesn’t matter if you’re the 1 versus the 8. We’re completely equal now. Anyone can win. You’ve seen that in the history of the game.”
Wilson, 22, said it seems like “forever ago” that he made his NHL debut in a playoff series against the Rangers three years ago. Cleanly shaven, he said he hopes this one lasts a lot longer than his previous two.
“Hopefully, we can do a before-and-after interview with the camera,” he said. “Hopefully in two months I’ll be sitting here with a big beard. There’s a ton of work to be done between now and then.”
And it all starts Thursday night.