Tom Wilson’s return couldn’t have come at a better time for streaking Capitals

Washington was fighting to stay out of the basement of the division and conference when Tom Wilson had his suspension reduced. Now, eight games later, the Capitals find themselves atop the Metropolitan and within striking distance of top spot in the East.
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It was two weeks ago that the Washington Capitals sat second from the bottom in the Metropolitan Division, a mere four points clear of the Eastern Conference basement and five points back of the division-leading Columbus Blue Jackets. It was two weeks ago that neutral arbitrator Shyam Das delivered his ruling on Tom Wilson’s 20-game suspension. It was two weeks ago that Wilson saw his ban reduced by six games — two of which he’ll never get back — and was made eligible to return to the Capitals’ lineup. And it was two weeks ago that Washington started a run that has made them one of the hottest teams in the NHL.

Since the day Wilson’s ban was lifted, Nov. 13, the Capitals have been rolling. Losers of four of six prior to the hulking winger getting his suspension slashed, Washington went out and won in Wilson’s return, with big No. 43 contributing a goal in his season debut. And while the Capitals went out and lost the next night, dropping a 3-1 road decision to the Winnipeg Jets, Washington hasn’t lost since, their record unblemished. Now, in the two weeks since Wilson’s return, the Capitals have risen to the top of the Metropolitan, they’re four points back of the conference and league lead and Wilson, well, he’s seemingly better than ever.

In fact, maybe most remarkable about everything that has happened with Washington over the past two weeks is they’ve been led offensively not by Alex Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom or even defenseman John Carlson, but by Wilson, who is and was fresh-legged from 16 games on the sidelines due to his suspension. Not only has Washington bench boss Todd Reirden leaned heavily on Wilson, who is logging the second-most ice time among all Capitals forwards over the past eight outings, the winger has stuffed the scoresheet with six goals and 12 points. That’s enough to make Wilson the Capitals scoring leader by a three-point margin since his return, and dating back to Nov. 13, the only players league-wide with more points are Mitch Marner and Nikita Kucherov, while Wilson is tied with Patrik Laine, Brayden Point and Mikko Rantanen. That’s some special company.

But is Wilson’s reduced suspension and subsequent insertion back into the lineup really to thank for Washington hitting its stride? From the standpoint of underlying statistics, there’s little evidence the Capitals have improved greatly upon Wilson’s return. Albeit, he has only played in one-third of Washington’s games this season and an eight-game sample is hardly enough to draw any grand conclusions, but the numbers are interesting to explore.

Measured on 16 metrics since Wilson’s return, including possession, shot, chance and goal rates per 60 minutes of play at 5-on-5 and shooting and save percentages, the Capitals have declined in seven notable areas. In terms of additional play driving, Washington has seen a reduced number of shot attempts, shots, scoring chances and high-danger chances per 60 minutes since Wilson’s return, which has then resulted in a downturn in Corsi percentage, shots percentage and scoring chance percentage at 5-on-5 across the past eight games. Where the Capitals have seen an increase, though, is in their ability to limit the opposition. Suppression rates for attempts, shots, chances and high-danger chances have improved at per 60 minute rates despite a decline in the overall percentage.

Where the biggest gains have been seen during Wilson’s return, though, are in some of the categories that are more susceptible to great swings over small samples. For instance, the Capitals’ already stellar 5-on-5 save percentage has risen slightly since Wilson was made eligible to rejoin his teammates, while significant gains have been made in shooting percentage, which has risen 4.7 percent at 5-on-5 over the past eight games, and in goals for percentage, which has increased from 50 percent pre-Wilson’s return to 62.2 percent since the big-bodied winger took his place back in the Capitals lineup. And given the increases Washington has experienced, no team has a higher combined shooting and save percentage, otherwise known as PDO, than the Capitals.

Overlooked by the underlying numbers, however, is that Wilson himself has managed to drive play, even if the overall numbers are slightly down since his return. The majority of Wilson’s shifts have begun in the defensive zone across his eight games, but he nearly breaks even in possession, is above 52 percent in shots for percentage and has 50.4 and 57.5 scoring chance and high-danger scoring chance percentages at 5-on-5 since his return.

The importance of that can’t be glossed over, either, particularly when Wilsons return was almost immediately followed by the sidelining of T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Neither has played since Nov. 14, when both suffered suspected concussions. What Wilson has allowed Washington in the absence of Oshie and Kuznetsov is a top-line that can still get the job done at both ends of the ice. Wilson has bolstered the top six, and an already somewhat juggled lineup might have been thrown into a state of disarray without him. Instead, Ovechkin and Backstrom are paired with a familiar face, and other pieces can be thrust into secondary roles instead of the spotlight. And given Wilson is playing as well as he is, one can't help but wonder if the overall underlying numbers in Washington won't take a notable upwards turn once the lineup returns to full health.

So, is Wilson — who registered two goals and three points in a win over the New York Islanders on Monday, the Capitals’ sixth consecutive victory — largely responsible for Washington’s climb up the Metropolitan and into contention for top spot in the East? To suggest as much as would be a stretch, as favorable shooting percentages and sound goaltending are as much to thank as anything. However, Wilson has definitely been an important part of the Capitals ability to stay competitive in the wake of some top-six injury trouble, his presence on the top line has provided considerable offensive spark and he continues to drive play while logging heavy minutes.

And given all of that, the case can be made that Wilson is proving once again he can be one of the most effective power forwards in the game when he’s playing on the right side of the law, and the timing of his return couldn't have been better for a Washington team that has looked every bit the defending Stanley Cup champions in recent weeks.

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