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Tom Wilson Inching Towards First 20-goal Season

Hard work, determination pays off for the Caps power forward, who is enjoying a breakthrough season while contributing in every facet of the game

by Zach Shapiro @ShapZach / WashingtonCaps.com

When Alex Ovechkin threw a centering pass from his knees to Tom Wilson in the first period of Wednesday's 5-3 win over the Flyers, he allowed his linemate to close within one goal of his first 20-goal season.

The assist will get most of the attention, but the finish - an easy flip into an open net for a 1-0 lead - was reflective of Wilson's evolving as a player.

Known throughout his career as an enforcer, a guy who may have bypassed a loose puck in favor of laying a hit, Wilson's rounded his game in his sixth season, becoming one of the Capitals most prolific offensive contributors. That's not by coincidence.

"There are hits he's staying away from now, yet he can still have a physical effect when he needs to," coach Todd Reirden said, noting a play in Philadelphia when Wilson fought through traffic while maintaining possession of the puck, determined to create an offensive opportunity.  

"That was one that may not have been done that way in the past," Reirden said. "He's continuing to grow and get better … Practices for him are an opportunity to improve, and I would say most of our players approach practice with that mindset, but some take it to another level. These are exciting times with Tom Wilson as a Washington Capital."

Wilson advertised his new style from the moment he took the ice this season. After missing the first 19 games, he scored in his 2018-19 debut on Nov. 13, then added 18 more points (10g, 8a) through the next 17 games. By Feb. 14, he'd already set a new single-season high in goals, with 15, in 39 fewer games.

But personal stats were never the point.

"We can talk about [20 goals] when it happens, but I've never been a guy who says, 'I need to get 10 goals' or 'I need to get 15' or 'I need to get 20,'" Wilson said. "That's just not my style, to set that type of goal. I go game-by-game just trying to help the team out. If I can contribute, it's going to help the team win, so that's all that matters."

Wilson said he expected more responsibility this season and attributed his development in part to ice time. He's skated an average 18:11 minutes through 48 games, up from 15:59 in 2017-18, as he's contributed more on the power play and penalty kill. Wilson also gushed on his supporting cast.

"When you're playing with Ovi and Kuzy, often you just have to get open, get them the puck and get to the net," Wilson said.

But he's also finding the net himself now, seeming to generate offense every minute he's on the ice. In addition to closing in on 20 goals, Wilson's just two points and seven assists shy of setting new marks in all three offensive categories. Prior to this season, Wilson's career average in goals, assists and points per game were 0.09, 0.18 and 0.27, respectively. This season, Wilson is averaging 0.40, 0.31 and 0.71, respectively. For those who have watched him grow throughout his career, that ability to create had always been present.

"With Tom, since the very beginning, I think you could see the potential," T.J. Oshie said. "Each year it feels like he's getting more and more trust from the coaches, and more confidence in himself. I don't think we're near the top of where he can get offensively. Obviously, me and him have the luxury of playing with pretty good centers and left wingers. But Tom's been creating areas for his linemates through his work ethic and his ability to hound pucks.

Added Braden Holtby: "His shot, his stick skills and his vision have all improved, and he's worked harder than anyone to improve those. Even in the last half of last year and the playoffs, he was on [a similar] path. He's playing a lot, which helps anyone. When you get those reps, you get more comfortable. And you can tell he's extremely confident with the puck."

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