It is not a dream anymore. Capitals rookie forward Tom Wilson, in the OHL playing junior hockey two weeks ago and in the AHL as recently as Wednesday, will make his NHL debut tonight in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Wilson, 19, a first-round draft pick just last June, will play tonight in Game 5 of an Eastern Conference quarterfinal against the New York Rangers. Wilson will skate on the fourth line with Matt Hendricks and Jay Beagle. It’s a big step.
“A couple of the guys have already told me that it’s a simple game,” Wilson said. “It’s still the same sport right? The guys in Hershey told me the same thing, so I’m just going to go out there and play my game and hopefully help the team out.”
His father, Kevin, and his brother Pete, 24, should both be in attendance at Verizon Center tonight. Younger brother Jamie has his prom tonight in suburban Toronto. That’s an important night in its own right, according to mom Neville, so they’ll be staying home. Wilson joked that Jamie will probably follow the game on his smart phone.
Wilson spent three games in the AHL with Hershey after his junior season with OHL Plymouth ended on April 26. After the Bears’ season ended on Wednesday night, the team took a bus home from Providence to central Pennsylvania and then Wilson and veteran Joey Crabb got less than two hours of sleep before jumping in a car to Washington for practice. It’s been a whirlwind. Maybe it’s better that Wilson isn’t quite sure what he’s getting into.
“We’re trying to make this as smooth and as easy as possible for him,” Troy Brouwer said. “I remember my first game. It was a regular-season game, but it was still tough. Just the magnitude of the game to be thrown into it, I don’t know if he’s gonna sustain a lot of minutes, but hopefully he goes out there and he enjoys himself.”
Wilson said Hershey teammate Michael Latta pulled him aside when he arrived there and told him it was the same game, not to be nervous. Hendricks has already done the same in Washington. Easier said than done, of course.
“Just relax and play and enjoy the moment,” Oates said. “Obviously, he’s going to be pretty hyped up, so I don’t think he’s going to listen to anything you say anyways. You know what? He’ll be fine. Good for him to get this opportunity, and it’s fun to watch him with a smile on his face.”
Expect a normal amount of minutes from Wilson for a fourth liner – though if the Caps fall behind he will certainly be double-shifted for Alex Ovechkin.
Taken No. 16 overall in the first round of last June’s NHL draft, Wilson is a physical presence at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds. He had 32 goals and 43 assists – 60 games, including the playoffs – for OHL Plymouth during his junior hockey season. He had a goal in three games with Hershey, though took six penalty minutes, too. That’s long been an issue for Wilson, who was asked by the organization before the season to increase his scoring production and decrease his penalty minutes in the OHL. He did that to an extent dropping from 141 to 104. But he also had to serve a five-game suspension for a check from behind. He plays with an edge.
“Every time there’s a chance to hit a guy, you should finish him because in a long series the bumps and the bruises, if you ask any hockey player, they add up,” Wilson said. “So guys finish their checks in the playoffs and they play hard. I’ve played in playoff games before and I love it and I’m a really competitive kid and just want to win so I’m going to do everything I can.”
And that is part of Washington’s thinking here. The Rangers have added a trio of hard, physical players as this series has gone on in Brian Boyle, Derek Dorsett and Ryane Clowe. Those players were effective in two wins at Madison Square Garden. It might be limited minutes, but Wilson at least has the frame and pedigree to provide similar toughness.
Beagle has experience with parachuting into a playoff series. He did it himself in Game 4 of that epic Eastern Conference semifinal with Pittsburgh in 2009 and played the final four games for Washington. He had all of three games of NHL experience before that game.
“It was obviously a great learning experience and, looking back on it, it was something that you’ll probably never forget and you also wanted to take a lot from it,” Beagle said. “But it’s kind of crazy, to be honest with you, to get kind of put into [it]. It’s something you almost can’t describe. It’s an awesome feeling. The other way you’re looking at it is, I’ve got to help this team try and win and get a win.”
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