The Associated PressWASHINGTON (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 win in Game 1 on Thursday.
“It’s hard to say what was up there,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “Maybe we [were] 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 [won] 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.”
Gallant named 1st Knights coach
LAS VEGAS (AP) — Kicked off the bus by the Florida Panthers in November, Gerard Gallant is packing his bags for Las Vegas to take over as the first coach of the expansion Golden Knights.
GM George McPhee cited Gallant’s experience and past success in announcing the hiring Thursday after what he called an extensive search.
“He is an experienced coach, has had success at multiple levels and has a great reputation amongst the players who have played for him,” McPhee said.
Gallant joins the Golden Knights some five months after being unceremoniously fired by the Panthers immediately following a 3-2 loss to the Hurricanes at Carolina. Gallant’s luggage was removed from the team bus outside the arena and he had to take a taxi while the Panthers left him to continue their road trip to Chicago.
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.