TORONTO — Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin stood at the lectern at the Hockey Hall of Fame on Wednesday afternoon, but he wanted the spotlight to be on his teammate Tom Wilson, the hometown boy.
Growing up in Toronto, Wilson had visited the Hall of Fame often, for birthday parties or just to appreciate the history, and Ovechkin spent most of his speech talking about how happy he was for Wilson to be memorialized there. This visit was more triumphant than those as a kid, a Stanley Cup champion there to represent the Capitals as they donated their commemorative ring for display.
Wilson’s victory tour continued a night later, with the winger starring in the Capitals’ 3-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. He’d come here, to Scotiabank Arena, as a boy, too, and these days he elicits boos whenever his name is called. That happened twice Thursday, first for an assist he got an Brett Connolly’s goal and then for the shorthanded tally he added in the third period to seal the result for the Capitals.
“It’s kind of fun,” Wilson said. “If you told me as a kid that I’d be getting booed here one day, I’d be okay with it. It’s pretty special every time I play here.”
Wilson has 16 goals through 42 games, and all of the attributes that make him so important to Washington were on display Thursday. His physicality created Connolly’s goal, but he flashed his skill and speed, the less talked about qualities, on his snipe.
“He’s improved his vision and skill,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “He’s huge for our team. You see what he brings to our top guys and goals exactly like Conno’s today. He’s effective at all areas of the game.”
With Washington up two goals entering the third period, third-line center Lars Eller got kicked out of the faceoff circle, and then Connolly lost the defensive-zone draw to Toronto’s Auston Matthews. Matthews carried the puck around the back of the net, and his wraparound shot rebounded off goaltender Braden Holtby’s pads and right to Maple Leafs forward Andreas Johnsson, who punched it in to trim Washington’s lead to 2-1.
Less than two minutes later, Capitals defenseman John Carlson was penalized for hooking, giving the Maple Leafs’ an opportunity to draw even on the power play. But then Eller swiped the puck away from Johnsson and sped up the ice with Wilson following for a two-on-one. Eller fed Wilson in the high slot, and Wilson beat Toronto goaltender Frederik Andersen to restore Washington’s two-goal cushion. John Tavares scored with Andersen on the bench for an extra attacker in the game’s final minute, but the Capitals hung on from there.
Holtby finished with 40 saves in one of his most impressive performances of the season.
“There’s not a lot to say,” Ovechkin said. “You see everything out there. I thought both goalies played well, but Holts today was unstoppable. He made tremendous saves and keep us in the game.”
The Capitals had a whirlwind 36 hours leading up to Thursday night’s puck drop. At Wednesday morning’s practice in Toronto, they learned forward Devante Smith-Pelly, a beloved teammate and key piece to their Stanley Cup run last season, was placed on waivers. He was sent down to the organization’s American Hockey League affiliate Thursday, clearing $1 million for Washington to acquire winger Carl Hagelin from the Los Angeles Kings.
“He’s very fast, very skilled and works hard,” Holtby said of Hagelin. “He’s hard to play against, and he’ll accept any role — [penalty kill], up and down the lineup. That’s why he’s had success where he’s played, and he’ll bring a lot to our team.”
Hagelin didn’t play against the Maple Leafs. He is expected to make his Capitals debut Saturday at Buffalo, but with the trade deadline still four days away, there’s still some uneasiness in Washington’s locker room about what other moves the team could make.
Hagelin was added in part to shake up the team chemistry with the group largely scuffling through the midseason. The Capitals’ previous performance, a 3-2 win in Los Angeles, was encouraging, and the Maple Leafs provided a good challenge for Washington to string two good games together. With both teams allowing high-quality scoring chances in the first period, a game between two deep, offensively gifted clubs turned into a goaltending duel, both Holtby and Andersen dazzling with acrobatic saves.
The Capitals broke through in the second period. Toronto defenseman Morgan Rielly was called for holding center Evgeny Kuznetsov, and for a fourth straight game, Ovechkin struck first for the Capitals, this time with his signature one-timer from the left faceoff circle on a power play. This strike marked his league-leading 43rd goal and he’s got five goals with three assists in the past eight games.
Connolly has been nearly as hot as Ovechkin of late, and his goal started with a play by Wilson. Twelve minutes into the second period, Wilson knocked over Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner as he was retrieving a puck behind Toronto’s net, and Eller pounced on the loose disk to set up a diving goal by Connolly in front of the net, his fifth in the past seven games. The tally gave him 15 goals in each of the past three seasons. In a contract year, Connolly has 21 more games to eclipse that number for the first time in his career.
With the win, the Capitals give themselves some extra cushion in the standings. They have a four-point lead on the third-place Pittsburgh Penguins but still trail the first-place New York Islanders. They’ve earned six out of a possible 10 points so far on this season-long six-game trip.
“It adds up, all the time changes and miles and just going through different things as your group — making a trade and putting a guy on waivers,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “You see you’ve got a lot of emotional things going on with your group as well, and I’m really proud of how hard our guys played tonight.”