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Clean or dirty, Tom Wilson's hits will always be scrutinized

Nobody hits as hard as Wilson, even when he's playing on the right side of the law. And because of his suspension history, he'll be under the microscope every time he hurts another player. That will never change.

“Why are you talking to me?” Tom Wilson urged the reporters jokingly. “Talk to Holtby. He was great tonight.”

It didn’t work, of course. Wilson was trying to be modest but simply drew more eyes and ears to his stall to hold court after his Washington Capitals toppled the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3 in overtime Tuesday night at Scotiabank Arena.

The moment was a microcosm of Wilson’s career, wasn’t it? The harder he tries to go about his business, the more attention he attracts.

We saw it multiple times during Tuesday’s game alone. Wilson, 25, has missed 23 games due to suspension since debuting in the NHL in 2013-14, but even when he’s trying to play clean hockey, he struggles to avoid controversy. It’s the product of being a 6-foot-4, 220-pound behemoth who can hurt guys whether he’s hitting them legally or illegally, and we saw it first hand in two separate incidents versus Toronto.

The first came in the first period, when Wilson chased Leafs defenseman Jake Muzzin on the forecheck, tried to deliver a hit and only got a piece of Muzzin, producing some leg-on-leg contact. The hit forced Muzzin from the game with a charley horse, so the news could’ve been far worse, but there is no current timetable for his return to the lineup.

The second incident came in the third period, when Wilson lined up Leafs defenseman Tyson Barrie along the boards. Barrie saw Wilson coming and tried to bail out but ended up with his knee smashed into the boards. Barrie shook it off and stayed in the game.

“It was twice there they tried to get out of the way, and that makes it a little bit awkward,” Wilson said. “I’m trying to finish through the center of the guy, and when they slide out of it or whatever, that’s when you get tangled up. I saw (Muzzin) get back on the ice and try to keep playing, but I wish him the best. He’s a great player. I admire his game a lot, and he’s a big player for them, so hopefully he can get back out there soon.”

There’s a natural tendency to bust out the torches any time Wilson touches someone because, let’s face it, he’s dangerous. That can be a compliment or a criticism depending on the situation. Even when he’s clean, he’s dangerous simply because of the force with which he can hit another player. In the two cases Tuesday, though, he was mostly on the right side of the law. There was nothing wrong with the Muzzin hit, as the leg contact came as a result of Muzzin trying to escape. Wilson earned a charging penalty for the Barrie hit as a result of the distance travelled, but we shouldn’t expect Wilson to earn any supplemental discipline for either of the incidents. Charging is one of the most difficult infractions for officials and the Department of Player Safety to evaluate, particularly when it involves a hit on the puck carrier. Charging isn’t defined by strides anymore, so it’s subjective when we try to decide if a forechecker is travelling a given distance to hit a player or go for the puck.

So Wilson made a significant impact on Tuesday’s game with only a minor penalty (plus another offsetting minor) to show for his play. The Capitals will take that. That's roughly where they want Wilson to operate: imposing his will without crossing the line while contributing on offense with his underrated skill set.

“Tom is our key guy to get our emotion up to a different level,” said captain Alex Ovechkin minutes after scoring the overtime winner. “You see him play hard, block shots, finish his checks. He has opportunities to score goals, and he’s one of our leaders on the team. It’s nice to see how he’s grown up as a player, as a teammate and a person.”

" ‘Wils’ played in Plymouth, and I saw him lots as a junior,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “When they first brought him into the NHL, I thought, ‘They're going to wreck this kid. They've got him here too soon.' And he's helped himself, because he's played with good players. He has good talent. He's mean, he's hard, he's physical. He's a factor and he plays in the top six. Not many guys like that."

Still, it feels like only a matter of time before the topic of Tom Wilson’s proximity to ‘The Line’ comes up again. It may happen on his very next hit given how devastating each one of them is. And, even if he’s on good behavior now by his standards, Wilson will have to remain a model citizen for at least six more months. His last suspension came in October 2018. It was 20 games, appealed down to 14. Wilson will have to avoid discipline for 18 months in total to get cleared of repeat-offender status, though the NHL has made exceptions in the past for players who aren’t technically repeat offenders but haven’t shown any signs of changing their unsafe behavior.

One of those players, of course, was Raffi Torres, who earned a 41-game ban in 2015, the second-longest in NHL history. He was treated as a repeat offender, with that suspension compounding on his 25-game ban from 2012, which had been reduced to 21. The compounding effect is particularly relevant for Wilson and the Capitals to remember, because Wilson’s next suspension has potential to be historic-level long, though it remains to be seen if it would compound on last season’s 20-game ban or its appealed-down number of 14.

So while Wilson can feel good about Tuesday’s game, he’ll have every one of his borderline hits scrutinized like this going forward, at least until or unless he proves he can stay clean for 18 months. Sorry, Capitals fans. Walking that tightrope is life as Tom Wilson.

“I always just try to play the game hard and finish my checks,” he said. “And if I get a chance to chip in offensively then I will and try to do that.”

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