TORONTO — Tom Wilson had dreamed of celebrations at Air Canada Centre just like this one — stick in the air, helmet askew from teammates joyfully mobbing him, a bench of players leaning over and waiting for him to skate by and bump fists.
A Toronto native, Wilson had probably once envisioned doing just that in a blue Toronto Maple Leafs jersey, but the Washington Capitals have never been so happy to see him in their road whites. On Wednesday morning, Coach Barry Trotz moved Wilson higher in the lineup to spark the team’s third line, and when asked what he brings to that trio, Trotz just responded, “He’s Tom Wilson. Everybody knows who Tom Wilson is. That’s what he brings.”
If everybody didn’t know of Wilson before the Capitals’ 5-4 win over the Maple Leafs on Wednesday night, they do now. Wilson saved one goal in the first period, then scored two, helping the Capitals even their first-round playoff matchup against Toronto at two games apiece. The Capitals now have home-ice advantage back in the best-of-seven series with the chance to take a lead Friday night at Verizon Center.
“It’s that time of year,” Trotz said. “There’s some fabulous heroes, not always the ones that you think are going to be there. Obviously, the big names are always there, but he played the right way today.”
Washington’s big names came through when its lead started to evaporate. Unlike in Game 3, when the team squandered a two-goal lead, the Capitals showed more poise when the Maple Leafs threatened to get back in the game late. Toronto started the third period with a lengthy five-on-three, and thanks to five saves from goaltender Braden Holtby, Washington was able to maintain its two-goal advantage.
“It was almost like there was no doubt when we came out of the dressing room,” Trotz said. “They were going to get it done. I just had a good feeling about it.”
A goal by star rookie Auston Matthews with eight minutes left in the game unluckily went off a linesman before getting past Holtby, and that got the Maple Leafs within one, but the Capitals responded well. A T.J. Oshie goal less than a minute later, his second of the game, quieted the crowd for good. With goaltender Frederik Andersen pulled for an extra attacker, Tyler Bozak scored with 25.8 seconds left in regulation, but by then it was too late for Toronto.
The Capitals raced out to a 2-0 lead in the first five minutes of the game, but as the Maple Leafs have shown throughout this series, they don’t just roll over. A puck that went off Zach Hyman’s skate and then past Holtby halved the deficit. Toronto then nearly tied the game when Wilson’s heroics started.
A snap shot from defenseman Morgan Rielly was initially saved by Holtby, but the puck started to trickle between the goaltender’s legs. Holtby appeared unaware, and Wilson dived to knock the puck out of danger with his stick just short of the goal line. The Capitals then raced up the ice, and Wilson tipped in a shot from center Lars Eller to lift Washington to a two-goal lead again.
“Those plays kind of go into slow-mo,” Wilson said of his save. “I could see it sitting on [Holtby’s] pants. And I know, the shape of the puck, it’s going to fall down. So it was falling behind him and I just kind of had time to jump in and try and make a save there.”
Less than three minutes later, Wilson scored again on a two-on-one with Andre Burakovsky, and with Washington desperate to avoid falling into a 3-1 series hole, that goal gave the Capitals their largest lead in a game all series. It was also Wilson’s third goal in the series, matching a team high, when he hadn’t scored a postseason goal in his career until Game 1, an overtime game-winner.
In the regular season, Wilson had seven goals in 82 games, the only Washington forward who hadn’t finished with a double-digit goal total. When Toronto Coach Mike Babcock was asked about Wilson before the series started, he said, “Nothing against [Wilson], because he works hard and all that, but he’s not as big of concern as a lot of people on their team.”
Wilson saw a reporter’s tweet of that quote and shrugged it off, even acknowledging that Babcock was right to focus more on the Capitals’ offensive stars such as Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin also scored in the first period.
“I was debating shutting down my Twitter after the last game,” Wilson said. “You catch a lot of flak, but that’s just passion. That’s the nature of the game. There’s people that like you; there’s people that hate you. I didn’t want to come into Toronto and be liked by the fans.”
On Wednesday night, Wilson was on the third line because it was the only Capitals trio to not have scored a goal yet in the playoffs. Lack of secondary scoring was what handed Washington an early exit in the second round a year ago, which was why the team acquired Eller to center the third line. But Washington’s bottom-six forward corps had been outscored by Toronto’s, 4-1, entering Wednesday night.
Trotz has moved Wilson, a young, physical winger, up the lineup throughout the season, and he figured his big frame could serve as a net presence for Eller and Burakovsky. A former first-round pick, Wilson has been criticized for his lack of offensive production, but the scoring ability Washington’s scouts once saw in him arrived just in time.
He grew up a fan of former Maple Leafs Darcy Tucker and Mats Sundin. His favorite time of the year was watching Toronto play on Saturday nights for “Hockey Night in Canada.” Catching a game at Air Canada Centre with his father was considered a special occasion because the ticket prices were so steep.
On Wednesday night, against the hometown team he once loved, Wilson further established himself as a fan favorite in his new city, where the ghosts of past playoff disappointments were temporarily forgotten.
“When you’re a kid, you always have big dreams, and I was kind of lucky enough to fulfill them,” Wilson said. “It’s a huge privilege. There’s a lot of guys that work hard to get to this level, and if you get a chance to play an NHL game, it’s special. A playoff game? Even better. So there’s going to be different guys who step up. I thought all our guys stepped up tonight. There was good scoring from kind of every line. You know what, it’s fun to win in Toronto for sure.”