PITTSBURGH — The YouTube video which showed Erik Gudbranson resoundingly winning a fight against Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson quickly made the rounds on social media after the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired Gudbranson at the NHL trade deadline in February. Wilson is a noted Penguins nemesis and has concussed two Penguins since last May. Specifically, Wilson concussed and broke Zach Aston-Reese’s jaw, for which Wilson was suspended three games, and Wilson concussed defenseman Jamie Oleksiak during a fight in December.
The Penguins acquired the 6-foot-5, 217-pound Gudbranson to provide pushback and the natural thoughts might lead many to wonder if Gudbranson will hunt Wilson. That’s not a notion Gudbranson wanted to embrace. It’s not his job to seek conflict but if it needs to happen, then Gudbranson is fine with that, too.
“I’m OK with it. I’ve always been OK with it. I don’t particularly like talking about it. I’m certainly not going to say that I’m looking for it,” Gudbranson said. “If the situation arises, I’ve never been one to back down. I guess I can leave it at that.”
Gudbranson admitted he didn’t want to talk too much about it. That’s how quotes get put on the opponent’s wall and saying the wrong thing can heighten the potential clash, or make it inevitable when it otherwise may be avoidable. Wilson has certainly inflicted his share of damage on the Penguins.
“He’s a physical presence. He plays the game hard and tickles that edge every game,” said Gudbranson. “You need to be aware of him but there’s a number of other players as well that I need to be aware of.”
“Yeah. That’s just a part of my game. That’s something that’s been with me ever since I was in juniors, really,” he said. “Obviously, I’m going to have my eyes out for him but I’m going to play my game.”
“I’m certainly not going to wrap my around one guy on that team but you do have to be aware of him on the ice.”
The Penguins trail the Washington Capitals by six points in the Metro Division. Catching them is probably an impossibility with just 13 games remaining, but a regulation win would give the Penguins a fighting chance.
No pun intended.
“This time of year, in general, is fun for everybody. Whether you’re a skill guy or a guy who tries to keep it simple like me, you have to be better at this time of year,” Gudbranson said. “You have to make yourself uncomfortable, do uncomfortable things to succeed.”
Things may be uncomfortable for one or both Gudbranson and Wilson tonight, but their teams will thank them for the work. It is the undercurrent of hockey which doesn’t show up on a Corsi metric or scoring chance ratios. But it shows up in the locker room and on the ice when a team feels like they can push back.
In the end, the Penguins lacked such pushback last season.
Since being acquired by the Penguins, Gudbranson has been a rock-solid defenseman, too. He’s also a +6 in his last five games, which is his best five-game set this season. The Penguins have rewarded with ice time. He hasn’t played less than 18 minutes since being acquired.
The right-handed defenseman has seemingly found a home at the third pairing right-side defenseman. And the Penguins are happy to finally have a righty on the right side, especially one whose right hand can be multi-purpose, even if he doesn’t want to talk about it.