CAPITAL ONE ARENA — Tom Wilson knew what was coming.
Suspended the first time the Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins met this season on Oct. 4, a reckoning was coming one way or the other. Wilson’s illegal check to the head of Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese during the Stanley Cup playoff series last May 1 wasn’t forgotten. It left Wilson with a three-game suspension and Aston-Reese with a broken jaw.
But instead of waiting around for retribution, Wilson delivered his own in the first minute of a 2-1 loss on Wednesday. Wilson thought Penguins defenseman Jamie Oleksiak had hit teammate Matt Niskanen high, so he dropped his gloves and charged.
One punch, two punches and a third buckled Oleksiak and left him cut under the left eye. He had to be helped to the bench and did not return.
"I think both parties knew,” Wilson said. “I read the stuff that's said after last season and leading up to it. Yeah, I think it probably had to be done sooner or later, give [Oleksiak] a chance to defend his teammate after what happened last year. Obviously, you never want to see a guy go down like that. That's hockey. I respect him as a player, and it's unfortunate to see that."
Wilson will always play a central role in any game between these two teams. Lest anyone accuse him of being just a goon, Wilson feathered a beautiful pass to teammate Lars Eller on an odd-man rush that led to a 1-0 Washington lead at 6:38 of the second period.
“I think Willie as a player probably doesn’t get enough credit for what he brings,” Eller said. “Willie can do a lot of things. His game has definitely grown a lot this season. It already grew a lot I think last season, and in the playoffs, but he’s taken another step this year and it’s good for our team.”
In just 14 games thanks to his reduced suspension and an upper-body injury, Wilson has 16 points (nine goals, seven assists). He played on the second line with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana. But his fight with Oleksiak was the spark that lit the fuse on a tinder box of a game that didn’t need any help.
For three years, the Penguins and Capitals have played playoff series that eventually led to a Stanley Cup champion. Wilson has been in the middle of all of it.
“I know our guys knew it was going to be a spirited game,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “I thought our guys competed hard and they gave Jamie a big, rousing applause after the game and he deserved it.”
The Penguins played 59 minutes, 55 seconds with just five defensemen, but held on for the win thanks to heroic work from the penalty kill, strong goaltending from Matt Murray and a little luck. Three times Washington hit the post or snuck a shot past Murray only to see it stay out of the net.
There were penalties and big saves and screaming matches and we are four months from the games that really matter. But the history of the series turned a regular-season game into much more than that on Wednesday.
Asked if he remembered Pittsburgh general manager Jim Rutherford’s quotes about him in May after the season ended – that Wilson “couldn’t run quick enough to get away” from Oleksiak rather than fight him after his hit on Aston-Reese in Game 3 of their second-round playoff series – Wilson demurred. That was ancient history.
But in this rivalry, memories are long, and nothing is really forgotten.
"It doesn't really matter, I don't think,” Wilson said. “You know, Oleksiak plays tough. He's a big part of their team, and he came out pretty aggressive right on the first shift there. He went a long way to make that hit, and right when we looked at each other, it was on. That's hockey."
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