By STEPHEN WHYNO, AP Hockey Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — Heavily favored to beat the young and inexperienced Toronto Maple Leafs, the Stanley Cup-contending Washington Capitals weren’t supposed to be the team that flubbed and floundered at the start of the playoffs.
Playing some of their worst hockey of the season, the Capitals fell behind by two goals early but came back to force overtime. Tom Wilson scored 5:15 into extra period for a 3-2 victory in Game 1 on Thursday night.
“It’s hard to say what was up there,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “Maybe we was a little bit nervous, maybe kind of feel the pressure a little bit. But when they score, all the bench said, ‘Just calm down and let’s play our way.’ Coming back in after first there was no panic, obviously still lots of minutes to play. … We just grinded it out and win in overtime.”
Playoff star and 2014 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Justin Williams scored twice in regulation and Braden Holtby stopped 35 of the 37 shots he faced to give Wilson the opportunity to be the hero. The fourth-line winger who grew up a Maple Leafs fan in Toronto beat Frederik Andersen to the far side for his first NHL playoff goal.
Williams said to Wilson afterward, “It feels good, doesn’t it?” The Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals could exhale because they survived a serious scare from the Maple Leafs in their playoff opener.
Despite having nine players making their playoff debuts, Toronto showed no fear of Washington, as rookie Mitch Marner scored 1:35 in and Jake Gardiner made it 2-0 at the 9:44 mark. Andersen made 41 saves but lost track of the puck in front of him on Williams’ second goal and should have stopped Wilson’s shot.
“I thought Freddie was really good, and then he’d probably like to have that back,” coach Mike Babcock said. “But he gave us an opportunity, so I don’t think you can argue with that.”
Williams gave the Capitals the opportunity to bounce back from their rough start with the fourth two-goal game of his playoff career. Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who led all players with nine shots on net, said the team rallied around Williams — the veteran who reassured everyone at intermission.
“In between periods it was basically Justin just kind of calmed everyone down, said, ‘Relax, we’re not going to win every period,'” Holtby said. “That’s what leaders do. He got us a big couple goals and fought hard all game.”
Then Wilson prevented the Capitals from really feeling the pressure going into Game 2 Saturday by finally finding the net in his 29th playoff game. Growing up a fan of Maple Leafs players like Darcy Tucker, Ed Belfour, Curtis Joseph, Shayne Corson and Mats Sundin, he never envisioned scoring this kind of goal against his boyhood team.
“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.”
Wilson’s goal came two days after Babcock said the fourth-line winger is “not as big of concern as a lot of people” on the Capitals. The 23-year-old agreed with Babcock and tried to brush that off.
“He’s got a point,” Wilson said. “There are other guys that they have to worry about.”
Wilson is one of several Capitals players the Maple Leafs have to worry about as they try to dig out of a 1-0 hole.
“It’s a tough way to start the playoffs but they came back and took it to us,” Gardiner said. “They’re a heck of a team, but I also think we’re no slouch either so we’re not going away.”
NOTES: Capitals D John Carlson returned after missing the final four regular-season games with a lower-body injury. … Maple Leafs D Nikita Zaitsev was out with a lower-body injury. … Marner is the first Toronto rookie to score a playoff goal since Jeff Farkas in 2000. … Washington has won eight in a row at home against Toronto and eight of the teams’ past nine meetings.
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