Tom Wilson picked a perfect time to score his first career NHL playoff goal. Willy batted down a poor clear up the boards by Leafs defenseman Martin Marincin with his glove and before Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen could get fully set, he fired the biscuit top shelf over the left shoulder of #31 as he went down into the butterfly position. The perfect shot gave the Washington Capitals a come from behind, 3-2, victory just 5:15 into overtime in the first game of their best of seven series.
The Caps are now up 1-0 and to quote the great Tom Hanks from Castaway.
Wilson! Wilson!!!! Wiiiilllllllllsssssooonnnnnn!!!
All season long the Capitals have had some issues when playing on more than a day’s rest and this game was no exception. Coach Barry Trotz did not like his teams first 30 minutes, at all, since Washington did not move their feet and they were extremely sloppy with their passes. It was bad hockey and as a result Toronto raced out to a 2-0 lead just 9:44 into the post season. Mitch Marner opened the scoring for the Leafs at 1:35 with a shot from the slot. Then with Nazem Kadri parked in the crease after cross checking Alex Ovechkin, Jake Gardiner’s shot from the slot went by Braden Holtby (35 saves). The zebras initially waved it off, but upon Coach Mike Babcock’s challenge they reversed the on ice call. Afterwards, the Holtbeast gave his take on how the Capitals should have handled that situation.
“I don’t know. I think that’s the right call. It’s more, in the future, us kind of pushing him out more, myself too, creating that goalie interference to create more space throughout the rest of the game. It’s kind of what you need to do when they are going to put a guy in the crease like that and wait for you to hit him. It was a common theme throughout the night so you look for patterns like that and we’re going to adjust next game.”
Speaking of patterns, for most of the first 30 minutes the Capitals were “playing slow,” as Nicklas Backstrom called it afterwards. Their passing was not crisp and they were not getting enough shots on net. Defensively, they were out of sync and the Leafs had 27 shots on goal just past the game’s halfway mark. It was not the type of hockey we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from Washington, but Trotz pointed out “there was no panic.”
Kevin Shattenkirk, who had an assist and nine shots on net in this tilt, told me on Sunday that the team would have stretches in the post season where they would not play well, but the key was just to stay on an even keel. Coach Trotz’ crew did just that and fortunately Mr. Game Seven, Justin Williams, scored the first two goals for the Capitals to even things up. “Stick’s” first goal came just after a five on three power play ended. Shattenkirk was winding up to shoot, but as he did so his stick broke and the puck slid over to T.J. Oshie to the left of the net. Most players would shoot from that position, but Osh Babe saw #14 wide open in front of the net and he put the puck right on Stick’s tape for an easy marker. That goal, which came less than three minutes after the Leafs went up two pucks, settled the Caps down a bit, but they still couldn’t take control of the game.
In the middle frame, Washington went over eight minutes without a shot on net, mainly because they were trying too much for the perfect play and as a result they over passed themselves out of position. But on a rush up the ice late in period two, Evgeny Kuznetsov found Matt Niskanen alone in the slot and #2 fired the puck on net. As Nisky told me afterwards, it wasn’t a great shot, but Andersen didn’t know where it was and with the puck under him he got up. That allowed Williams, who alertly hit the brakes at the top of the crease, to poke it in past the Leafs net minder to even the game up with four minutes to go.
“It was kind of a weird one, I was playing the wing at first on the breakout and then I was the fourth guy on the rush, probably not much of a chance of that shot going in, but Stick was able to pounce on a loose rebound, so I was just the fourth guy in the middle there. I was able to find just enough ice, it was a nice play by Kuzy,” said Niskanen on how he got the puck to set up the rebound goal for Wiliams.
Washington then received a late power play when Matt Martin was jailed for cross checking, but the Leafs were aggressive on the PK and only gave up one good look, to Shattenkirk. After two periods the Leafs had a 46-44 edge in shot attempts, including 28-25 in shots on goal.
In the third period, the Caps depth started to take over and the ice tilted Washington’s way, but Toronto still had some good chances. Coach Trotz’ crew had a 24-12 advantage in shot attempts and a 13-7 margin in shots on goal. It was much better hockey, but the Leafs still did a good job at jamming the walls on the Caps breakout forcing Washington to make a difficult zone exit or simply dump the puck in the air over the Leafs D.
In the overtime, the Capitals dominated with their depth and eventually it was Washington’s fourth line that got the game winner. With the Caps top trio not having a real quality game, it was imperative that a goal come from the bottom six, and Wilson delivered.
Overall, the Caps have to be really happy that their second line kept them in the game early on. Williams is known for his leadership and his ability to score big goals. He did just that in this one by paying the price and going to the net.
“He knows what time of year it is. You can see he goes to where you score goals. He’s so good at board battles and making little plays that move the game along, but he knows where the money’s at and that’s in the crease, so he goes there and really got us going tonight, for sure,” stated Niskanen on #14.
“Big time plays out of Justin Williams, he’s no stranger to them and he was someone who we really rallied around tonight,” added Shattenkirk.
Goaltending, on both sides, was very good in this game. Holtby had some rebound issues early, but as the game went on, he shut the door and made several big stops. Andersen was under siege a great deal as time progressed and the Caps ended up with 44 shots on goal. He made many saves, and Shattenkirk praised him when asked afterwards.
“He was [very good], and I think my biggest mistake was I was taking too long to shoot. I was allowing him to set on me and really just take away all of the angles. I have to be a little bit quicker with how I’m shooting the puck. I’m happy that I was putting myself in the right positioning to get those chances,” started #22.
As for the lack of shots in that eight plus minute stretch in the middle frame, Shattenkirk had an answer for it, as well.
“They did a good job of boxing out and sometimes we were just waiting for guys to get to the net and when we do that, it’s hard, because he’s a big goalie and when he sets himself he’s hard to score on from outside the tight areas.”
So the message going forward is for the Caps to shoot the puck quicker. Wilson proved that method will work with his game winning tally.
The Capitals took a while to find their rhythm on Thursday night after three days off against a talented and speedy Leafs squad, but now they get back to a game every other day schedule, one that has worked well for them this season. Coach Trotz stated afterwards that this contest was a wake up call and finished with the following:
“I’m sure you’ll see a much different team next game.”
Notes: Dmitry Orlov led the Caps in ice time with 25:22. Niskanen logged 24:36…The Leafs rode their top four D hard. Gardiner played 26:27, Matt Hunwick logged 26:04, Morgan Reilly was in at 24:24, and Roman Polak had 23:52. Connor Carrick and Marincin, the third pair, were right around 14 minutes…Washington’s third line had 17 shifts together for a total of 10:39 of ice time. Like most of the team, they were at their best in the third period…the Caps lost the face off battle, 38-33. Kuznetsov was 8-2, but Lars Eller was 3-11…game two is at the Verizon Center on Saturday at 7 pm.