- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Capitals forward Tom Wilson joked he might have been the happiest person in the arena after Washington’s 2-1 win Monday over the Pittsburgh Penguins — except for maybe teammate Alex Ovechkin.

A burden, after all, was lifted off Wilson’s shoulders. Serving the final game of his three-game suspension for a hit on Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese in Game 3, the win meant Wilson’s actions didn’t cost the Capitals the series.

Initially, his absence was seen as a potential series-changer, considering how tight the matchup was between the teams.

“So much goes in to [this] all season long,” Wilson said. “You play every game in the season, you do every practice, training camp, everything is to get ready for the playoffs. And then I get handed a three-game suspension in the playoffs. That’s a lot of important hockey to be missing. That was extremely painful and not an easy city to do it in.”

But Wilson is now back — ready to play Friday against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1.

The question for Wilson becomes: How much, if anything, does he need to change to avoid another suspension?

Admittedly, Wilson isn’t sure of the answer. A week later, the Capitals forward maintained he didn’t agree with the league’s ruling. To Wilson, the Aston-Reese hit was the result of his bigger frame making it worse than he intended it to be. Aston-Reese suffered a broken jaw and a concussion.

But, Wilson said, his body check was “the nature of the game.”

“It’s tough, so I’ve got to make sure that I’m finishing really low, making sure that I don’t give them the opportunity to analyze it in extreme slow mo and see that there might be a little bit of contact other than to the shoulder,” Wilson said.

In the NHL’s official explanation, the Department of Player Safety said Wilson made a high hit to Aston-Reese’s head where “such contact was avoidable.” The league said Wilson “pivots in his approach” to hit Aston-Reese’s head with his left shoulder, instead of opting for a full body check. They added Wilson unnecessarily extended upward.

Adding to his punishment, Wilson is a repeat offender, having been suspended four games to start the season for hit in the preseason.

Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen, meanwhile, called the league’s explanation “almost comical.”

“Me personally, I don’t want him to change a thing,” Niskanen said. “That hit is blown out of proportion just because of the result. So I don’t want him to change a thing. Tom has done a good job of trying to adapt to what the league wants him to do.”

There has been an effort by Wilson to try and avoid incidents. In October, Wilson and Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan met with Department of Player Safety head George Parros for an hour to discuss legal and illegal hits. Wilson said Thursday he has poured through video of every hit the league has reviewed this season.

Wilson, though, has drawn criticism during the playoffs. Before his suspension, Wilson was involved in two other hits that made opposing teams unhappy. In the first round, Wilson delivered a hard check to Columbus’ Alexander Wennberg. In Game 2 of the Penguins series, Wilson’s shoulder made contact with defenseman Brian Dumoulin’s head.

Early in his career, Wilson started as a fourth-line enforcer. There are compilations on YouTube of Wilson hits titled “TOM WILSON [GOON COMPILATION]” and “Tom Wilson - Psycho” with hundreds of thousands of views.

But Wilson is trying to shake the reputation. His role has evolved, scoring a career-high 14 goals this season. He has also spent the majority of the season on the Capitals’ top line.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz said Wilson has to stay on “the right side of the line.”

“I’m not sure I know the line, and I’m not sure he knows the line,” Trotz said. “But obviously, the line is a little less than it was before.”

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