When Tom Wilson learned he would be playing against his hometown team in the first round of the playoffs, he texted his father a tongue-out emoji in excitement. Born and raised in Toronto, Wilson grew up a Maple Leafs fan. On Thursday night, he added to the franchise’s recent heartbreak.
Thanks to Wilson’s overtime snipe, the Washington Capitals avoided disaster and won the opening game of their first-round playoff series against the Maple Leafs, 3-2 in overtime, at Verizon Center. In a matchup Washington is heavily favored to win as the league’s top team, it fell behind early because of sloppy play and turnovers.
Two goals from Justin Williams tied the contest, and Washington prevailed in overtime thanks to its unexpected hero. On Monday, Toronto Coach Mike Babcock was asked about Wilson and said, “Nothing against ‘Wils’ because he works hard and all that, but he’s not as big of concern as a lot of people on their team.”
Wilson later saw a tweet of that quote from Babcock.
“I see it obviously because my phone’s not off,” Wilson said. “It comes through. I get people sending it to me and stuff. I’m not going to deny that I saw it. Honestly, it’s a pretty true quote. He’s got a point.”
Wilson then proceeded to list off his talented teammates: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov. But those players didn’t score Thursday night. Instead, Wilson recorded his first playoff goal in 29 postseason games and just his third point. He’s the first Capitals player to score his first career playoff goal in overtime.
Williams saw Wilson standing around in the hallway after the game and just said, “It feels good, doesn’t it?”
Williams would know.
The Capitals acquired Williams before last season to add skill and scoring to their top six, but he also was appealing because of his résumé. He has won three Stanley Cups with two teams, and is nicknamed “Mr. Game 7” because of his success in those high-pressure situations. Williams won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2014 as the MVP in the Stanley Cup finals for the victorious Los Angeles Kings, and Washington was hopeful that a proven playoff winner would have a positive impact on a team known for its playoff failures.
Entering the game, Williams, 35, had been in more postseason games (127) than any other player on the ice. With Washington down by two goals less than 10 minutes into the contest, Williams single-handedly got the Capitals back in it. Washington got a five-on-three 10:52 into the first period, and Williams was able to redirect Oshie’s feed past goaltender Frederik Andersen to halve Toronto’s lead before first intermission.
With Washington getting outshot 10-3 in the first half of the second period, Williams again came through for a team that looked to be reeling at times.
Andersen caught the puck from a Matt Niskanen point shot between his legs, and when everyone else had stopped because the play looked dead, Williams kept skating toward the net. Andersen shifted, leaving the puck exposed, and Williams poked it through his legs and into the net.
“Everything’s about momentum,” Williams said. “They certainly had it to start, and we kind of calmed down, settled the nerves, and we did what we wanted to do: Come back from [down] two goals, and now you keep the pressure on.”
While the Capitals have consistently made the playoffs with their superstar core of Ovechkin and Backstrom, this marked a first for the Maple Leafs’ rookie stars. Washington had just one player in the lineup, Brett Connolly, playing in his first postseason game, but eight Toronto players made their playoff debuts at Verizon Center on Thursday night.
Yet the team with less experience looked more at ease to start the game.
The Capitals got off on a nightmarish note when Mitchell Marner scored just 1:35 into the game after a turnover. It got worse when Nazem Kadri screened Holtby in front as Jake Gardiner’s shot from the high slot got through to put Washington down by two goals less than 10 minutes in.
“To me, it’s a really good wake-up call for us,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “You get in the playoffs, and there are no easy games. The Leafs were well prepared, they’re a good hockey team, their kids are exceptional talents, and they can play. And you’ve got to play them hard.
“I know we’ve got another level, so I think it’s great that we had the start that we had. We were able to come out positive, and we can build on that.”
Toronto’s youth has shown this year in its inability to keep leads; the Maple Leafs lost eight games during the season when leading after two periods, the most in the NHL. It was fitting that Williams, the picture of postseason poise and experience, sparked the Capitals’ rally. When an arena started to panic, Williams seemed to get more settled.
After the game, he was happy his young teammate got to share in his postseason heroism. Wilson had something else to text his father about.
“You’ve lived this moment in your brain when you’re a young kid in the backyard or whatever when you’re 8, 9, 10 years old,” Wilson said. “So let’s just go out there and play. The playoffs are the best time of year. The building was unbelievable, the fans are second-to-none here and, obviously, a pretty good feeling putting that in the net.”