TORONTO — Sometime after he visited the Hockey Hall of Fame to help donate a championship ring like the 10.2 carats’ worth of precious stones he can slip over one of his swollen knuckles, but sometime before he burst up the gut shorthanded to snipe the game-winning goal…
Sometime after he charged heavy on the forecheck to set up his club’s second strike but sometime before he ran into local hero John Tavares… Tom Wilson heard his hometown booing him, and it was music to his ears.
“It’s kinda fun,” smiled Wilson, coming one fistfight short of a Gordie Howe hat trick during Thursday’s 3-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“If you told me when I was a kid that I’d be getting booed here one day, I’d be OK with it.”
Consider the other two thirds of the defending champions’ top line, which features arguably the greatest goal-scorer hockey’s ever met (Alex Ovechkin) and one of the most creative playmaking minds of this generation (Evgeny Kuznetsov), and Wilson would be the last guess as the one dominating the game.
But he did so on this night, as he has so many others and will undoubtedly do — a suspension notwithstanding — in the ones that matter once the snow thaws and the shoulders harden.
“A real difference-maker tonight,” coach Todd Reirden praised. “His game has grown so much in the last year and a half, two years, it’s remarkable. He just brings such a different element to whoever he ends up playing with.”
That elusive element — a hearty cocktail of recklessness, fearlessness, cockiness but spiced with hands and feet that can produce (a career-best 16 goals and 30 points in 42 games) — is the reason why competing teams are scrambling for the closest thing they can find to a Tom Wilson.
Who else coming off a 187 PIM season could outrace speedy Andreas Johnsson to turn a solo shorthanded rush into a 2-on-1, then accept a pass at speed and beat Frederik Andersen clean far-side at full stride?
“I gave my everything, and he was faster, and… I don’t know,” Johnsson said. “I mean, maybe I should’ve taken a penalty there instead of giving a chance.”
To think: All jacked up for his homecoming, Wilson not only led both teams in points (two) but in hits (five) and blocked shots (four) as well.
“Capitals-Toronto, you know? I’d be pumped, too,” Ovechkin said. “I wish I played in Moscow one time.”
The Capitals winning it all with Tom Wilson on the top line is why Ryan Reaves can earn a $5.55-million contract in Vegas. It’s why Columbus quietly covets the impact of Josh Anderson in Columbus. It’s why contenders will sharpen their trade-deadline bids to rent Carolina’s Michael Ferlund or Philadelphia’s Wayne Simmonds.
And it’s why Leafs coach Mike Babcock has used permanent marker when penciling his most aggressive hitter, Zach Hyman, on Toronto’s own top line.
“Pavel [Datsyuk] used to tell me he didn’t want two other guys on the line who wanted the puck; he wanted someone to get him the puck. He wanted the puck all the time,” Babcock said.
“So, that’s what those guys do. They get it for you, they get it back, and they go to the net. Right away when you go to the net, you tie up one D or he ties you up and there’s one less person and no one is close to you. Good players don’t want people close to them. They want space. That’s why that works.”
“I don’t think there’s one guy in the league that gets the puck back more than [Hyman]. Now, does he scare you like Tom Wilson? I don’t think so.”
Wilson is Liam Neeson in Taken: He possesses a very particular set of skills. Skills that make him a nightmare for people like you. And he’s only 24.
“He’s effective in all areas,” says Braden Holtby.
Amateur scouts are doubtlessly scouring for the next one.
“Teams look at the team that won prior and try to find out why they had success,” Wilson says.
“Obviously, the game is trending away from the physicality it’s had in the past, but that being said, come playoff time, it’s hard-nosed hockey. It’s right back to the hockey we all love, so it helps to have a team that’s well-balanced and can play a variety of types of games.”
Wilson & Co. went into this one with a focus on throwing the body. Ovechkin noted that the Caps had played too soft in their losses to the Leafs earlier in the season. Nailing Tavares was no accident.
“Tavares actually threw me down at the end of the last game. You guys saw that. He’s a great player. He’s skilled. When we’re playing against his line, we’re obviously going to try and play them hard,” Wilson said.
“I wanted to be physical tonight, that’s for sure. That was something I was concentrating on. When I’m playing fast and physical, Kuzy and Ovy can take care of the rest and kinda control the play. That was a team mentality.”
It’s not every team’s mentality, however.
So the more success Tom Wilson has this spring, the higher the demand will be for reasonable facsimiles. The louder the boos, the bigger the grin, and the more his six-year, $31-million contract will look like perfectly fair compensation.
“Whatever I can do to help the team, whether it’s Game 65,” Wilson says, “or Game 7, I’m gonna try and do it.”
“It was a first to hear some of the boo birds out there. That was different. But nice to leave with a win.”