TORONTO — Tom Wilson’s helmet was off-kilter and his face looked as if someone had just tried to rearrange it, because they had. The Toronto Maple Leafs would have loved for him to fight, because they were trailing in the game and they needed to spark a crowd that wanted something about which to explode. So they baited Wilson, and in the scuffle that happens in the corners of rinks this time of year, the refs called him for roughing.
Welcome home, kid. Welcome home.
“It’s convenient,” said Wilson’s father, Keven.
That’s about the best you can say about this situation, one in which a kid who grew up playing at a rink five miles north of Air Canada Centre is trying to beat his hometown team in that very building in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Right now, Wilson and his Washington Capitals teammates are failing. They lost, 4-3, to Toronto in Game 3 Monday night. They trail in this series, a series in which all three games have advanced to overtime, two games to one. And they have drawn attention to themselves this spring — once again, for the wrong reasons.
This is a shared experience, this annual April angst that the Capitals provide the entire Washington area. They are talented, and they are trailing. They were favored, and they could lose. They led Monday night by 2-0 and 3-1. They had a five-on-three power play and couldn’t score. They took a stupid penalty late in the third period, and it led to the power play that produced the game-winner.
They have to live with this. They have to get to Wednesday’s Game 4 and produce a different result in the same environment.
“You stay off Twitter and you don’t listen to outside noise,” veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
The outside noise is going to crescendo now. In the face of it, the Capitals are going to say what they’re supposed to say about their past collapses.
“I think it’s an outside-the-room-driven narrative,” defenseman John Carlson said. “But that’s what it’s been like in the past.”
“It’s on us,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “We play the game. We have to do a better job.”
We will search for blame Tuesday morning, and there’s plenty to go around, though a large share should be directed to center Lars Eller for his high-sticking penalty with 16 seconds left in regulation. There is an inescapable history with this franchise, and that colors the day. Who’s to blame? How bad will this be? Oh no, not again.
Yet each of the 20 players who pulled on Capitals sweaters Monday night has a story and a background and a family. They don’t matter to the masses, and that’s fine. But as Tom Wilson tried to grind down the Leafs, to resist their overtures to fight, the Wilsons of Toronto shifted in their seats. They are out in force here, three generations, including 88-year-old Jake Avery, proudly sporting his red No. 43 Capitals jersey, the one with “Grampie” on the back, a former player himself.
This is hockey country, and theirs is a hockey family. The people who came to this building’s first playoff game in four years — and, perhaps more so, the throngs gathered outside to watch communally — yelled and screamed and chanted for the Leafs. But there’s also every chance in the world they know families just like the Wilsons, the people who juggle early-morning practice drop-offs and pick-ups, who give up weekends and holidays and who can count what else?
“When Tom was eligible for the draft. . . ” Keven Wilson said between periods Monday night, and the stories are all right there, right at the tip of the tongue. His career playing at North Toronto Arena — a healthy jog from Air Canada Centre — then in juniors, on to draft day with the Capitals. In his NHL debut, which happened to be in a playoff game against the New York Rangers, Tom Wilson lost a skate blade and had to hobble to the bench.
“The refs wouldn’t help him back,” Keven Wilson said. “And they actually said, ‘Come on, go, rookie. You’ve got to figure this out.’ That’s an introduction to the NHL.”
They are beyond introductions now, and Keven Wilson predicted his son wouldn’t be lured into a fight by Toronto’s Matt Martin, a chief agitator. Dad was right, but barely. Tom remains Washington’s lone postseason hero this April, scoring the overtime goal that completed the Caps’ comeback in Game 1. Keven and his oldest son, Peter, traveled to Washington for that one. Keven’s wife, Neville, stayed home with their youngest son, Jamie.
“She’s still upset about that,” Keven Wilson said.
These are the stories that stay with families this time of year. We can and should focus on Eller’s penalty and Braden Holtby’s second straight game with four goals allowed and the Capitals’ continued dance with disaster. We should try to figure out if it means anything that the Ovechkin Era Capitals have twice lost Game 3 to fall behind in a series — and won those series anyway.
But we should remember, too, that there are other people watching this series from another angle. They are living it, breathing it, completely differently.
“Are you as nervous as I am?” Peter Wilson said to his father as the first intermission was expiring. Keven Wilson barely moved.
“Is it time?” Keven said.
It was time for one hockey family to head back up the stairs and into Section 103, to stare at all the Maple Leafs jerseys and try to blend in wearing Caps gear. And it was time, afterward, for one Toronto hockey dad to maintain his equilibrium, to conjure maturity that hockey fans in Washington were stripped of long ago.
“Hockey is a great game because if you get knocked down, you can get back up and get back in the play,” Keven Wilson said. “If you lose the game, 48 hours later you have a chance for redemption. It’s only the last loss of the season that is tough to swallow.”
The Capitals now have a say in when that last loss of the season will be. If it comes in the next week, the faithful will be tested once again, perhaps beyond the brink. And the players will go home to their families, who cringe and writhe and squirm with them the entire way.