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Tom Wilson not Penguins’ primary focus vs. Capitals

Jonathan Bombulie
| Tuesday, December 18, 2018 7:43 p.m
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Capitals right wing Tom Wilson pushes Sabres left wing Jeff Skinner during the first period Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018, in Washington.

If attitudes about fighting hadn’t changed dramatically in the NHL over the last decade or so, you could have set your watch to it.

A few minutes after 8 on Wednesday night, the puck will drop between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. A few minutes after that, the gloves would have dropped between Jamie Oleksiak and Tom Wilson.

Wednesday night’s game is the first regular-season meeting between Wilson and the Penguins since the controversial Washington winger gave Zach Aston-Reese a concussion and broken jaw with an illegal hit during a second-round playoff series last season.

The Penguins and Capitals already have met twice this season, but Wilson was suspended for both, sitting out a 20-game ban that later was reduced to 14 games for a violent hit on St. Louis’ Oskar Sundqvist in the preseason.

In the past, the Penguins’ most skilled fighter, Oleksiak in this case, immediately would have sought revenge on a player who injured a teammate with such a violent check.

That still might happen Wednesday night, but it’s no sure thing.

Now, players are more likely to let on-ice officials and the league office hand out retribution than seek it themselves.

On top of that, Wilson doesn’t seem to be all that interested in fighting anyway. In 13 games this season, he has nine goals and only one fighting major: a tilt with Minnesota’s Marcus Foligno in November.

And besides, the Penguins might have more pressing concerns than Wilson at the moment. They’ll wake up Wednesday on the fringes of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, having gone 5-2-1 in their previous eight games but not engendering much optimism about their immediate future with a penchant for giving up dozens of shots and squandering two-goal leads.

The Capitals, meanwhile, have shaken off an early season Stanley Cup hangover to win five in a row and 12 of their last 14.

“I think it’s a new season,” Oleksiak said earlier this year when asked if the Penguins still had unfinished business with Wilson.

“There’s obviously going to be emotions with the history of the two teams have had, but at the end of the day, you want to win. Our focus here is to do what we can to win games. Whatever happens after that usually takes care of itself. Winning is the first priority — as well as the safety of our players.”

Whether a heavyweight tilt happens or not, the level of physicality should be high when bitter rivals like the Penguins and Capitals meet.

Looking only at the numbers, the Penguins should feel perfectly comfortable in that environment. In a surprising statistical development, they actually lead the NHL in hits this season with 1,008. Washington, by way of comparison, ranks 17th with 695.

That stat is misleading, though, on a number of levels.

First, the Penguins haven’t ditched their skill-based identity for a bruiser’s mindset. Their hit total is likely a result of the stat being tabulated more liberally at PPG Paints Arena.

“I think because what constitutes a hit is so different in every building, it’s very difficult to take that stat at face value and try to learn something from it,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “The way the league tracks that stat, everybody’s completely different on what they (consider) a hit and what isn’t a hit.”

Even if the stat weren’t subject to interpretation, it’s a double-edged sword. All things considered, the Penguins probably would rather not be leading the league in the category.

“Obviously we’d like to have less hits because that’s an indication that we have the puck more and we’re controlling territory and we’re controlling possession,” Sullivan said. “But having said that, we want to have an element of physicality to our game because that’s how we become a more difficult team to play against.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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