The Capitals' Tom Wilson takes a roughing penalty during the...

The Capitals' Tom Wilson takes a roughing penalty during the second period against the Rangers' Artemi Panarin in an NHL game on May 3 at Madison Square Garden. Credit: AP/Bruce Bennett

Tom Wilson, Public Enemy No. 1 as far as the Rangers are concerned, is back at Madison Square Garden on Thursday with his Washington Capitals. It is the first time Wilson has played at the Garden since May 5, two days after he body-slammed a helmetless Artemi Panarin in a game against a Blueshirts team that was playing out the string at the end of the 2020-21 season.

That night, Wilson fought then-Rangers defenseman Brendan Smith, one of six fights in the Capitals’ 4-2 victory in a game that saw three simultaneous fights as soon as the puck was dropped for the opening faceoff.

The fighting had been a result of the Rangers’ ire at Wilson, the 6-4, 220-pound winger who slammed Panarin to the ice and punched him in the Capitals’ 6-3 win two nights earlier, after Panarin jumped on his back to try and help get him off then-teammate Pavel Buchnevich. Wilson had attacked Buchnevich during a Rangers power play.

The Rangers were incensed that Wilson, a repeat offender who had been suspended by the NHL five times for violent acts on the ice, was not suspended for his attack on Panarin. The league instead fined Wilson $5,000 for punching Buchnevich while he was lying face-down on the ice.

The Rangers put out a statement after the NHL’s ruling, calling for the firing of George Parros, head of the league’s Department of Player Safety. The next day, the team fired president John Davidson and general manager Jeff Gorton, replacing both with Chris Drury.

Drury worked over the summer to add grit and toughness to the Rangers’ roster. He traded for forward Barclay Goodrow, dealt Buchnevich to St. Louis for forward Sammy Blais and a second-round draft pick, traded for enforcer Ryan Reaves and signed free- agent defenseman Jarred Tinordi, who had fought Wilson last season while with Boston.

All of those players were in the lineup when the Rangers played the Capitals on Opening Night this season, but there wasn’t much rough stuff in a 5-1 Capitals win. Blais and Washington defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk each got double-roughing minors early in the first period, but there were no fights.

Rangers coach Gerard Gallant, in his first season with the team, said Wednesday that the Rangers weren’t thinking about Wilson as they were preparing for Thursday’s game.

"We never talked about it once,’’ he said. "I really think there's nothing. It's just, it's another game against a team that's a rival, a division opponent that's just a few points behind us. And that's what's important.’’

Wilson has been a model citizen this season. He does lead the Capitals in penalty minutes (65, in 48 games entering Thursday) but hasn’t been involved in any controversy. He even was selected for the NHL All-Star Game this month, as a replacement for teammate Alex Ovechkin, who tested positive for COVID-19 and could not go. The fans in Las Vegas booed Wilson every time his name was announced, in the skills competition and during the games.

At the All-Star Game, Wilson was a teammate of Chris Kreider on the Metropolitan Division squad. They seemed to get along fine. On Wednesday, Kreider explained that he has probably played, at some point in the past, with one or two players on every team in the league, including Capitals forward Garnet Hathaway, one of his closest friends growing up.

"There's a respect and professionalism, away from the game. I think everyone understands that,’’ Kreider said. "But the minute the puck’s dropped . . . you're still friends before the game, still friends after the game, but you're fighting tooth-and-nail with them during the game.’’

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