How could Tom Wilson resist?
Announced as one of the three stars after recording his first ever multi-goal game – the pest’s performance keying the Washington Capitals’ essential 5-4 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 4 – Wilson came out for a twirl, if only to troll, with his stick raised high over his head and a smile on his face as fans filed quietly out of the arena located at the heart of his hometown.
Maybe he would have passed up on the opportunity, had the opposing head coach not trivialized his impact – intentional or otherwise – before the series began. Or maybe not.
Regardless, the local kid deserved the shine typically reserved for the home team.
On Wednesday, Wilson validated his coach’s decision to bump him up in the lineup with spectacular shifts in succession which produced a three-goal swing on the scoreboard, and shift in momentum in the series, in under two-and-a-half minutes.
First, he made a remarkable diving goal-line clearance to prevent a Morgan Rielly shot that dribbled through Braden Holtby from crossing the goal line. Scrambling to his feet, and running the proverbial floor, Wilson planted himself in the opposing paint, and tipped Lars Eller’s shot through Frederik Andersen. Having turned a potential 2-2 score to 3-1, the charged winger then trucked through Rielly on his next shift, and as the Maple Leafs defenceman shook off the effects of a skate blade to the face while lying prone, Wilson broke out 2-on-1 with Andre Burakovsky and made it 4-1 with a forehand finish.
“You know what, it’s fun to win in Toronto for sure,” Wilson said afterward, via Postmedia’s Mike Zeisberger.
Almost a week after scoring the overtime winner in Game 1, Wilson, who had seven goals in 82 regular season games, now owns a definitive moment in both of Washington’s wins this series, demonstrating that he should indeed be regarded as a concern.
Still only one of many for the Maple Leafs.
Though the final scoreline reads close, Toronto was completely outclassed by the Capitals in Game 4, whiffing on its chance to take a 3-1 stranglehold in the series.
“It’s nice that we’re able to score goals, and get ourselves back in the game, but we didn’t play nearly as good as we had to,” Babcock explained afterward.
“We talked a lot about how the game was going to be today, but it didn’t look like any of that sunk in. We weren’t prepared.”
It began with deja vu.
After giving up an early goal, again, a breakdown in the Maple Leafs’ penalty kill allowed Alex Ovechkin to slip into a soft spot, wind up, and blast a shot past Andersen (scoring a goal that could have been superimposed nearly seamlessly over the one he scored in Game 3) to give the Capitals another two-goal lead within five minutes in consecutive games.
At that time, the Capitals had opened up a 15-1 advantage in shot attempts, and maintained a comfortable discrepancy, routinely caving in the Maple Leafs, until letting off the gas over the last period and change, allowing score effects to balance out the attempts.
The win wasn’t without depth contributions beyond Wilson’s, but the Capitals’ top unit, which has been contributing consistently despite the opposition line being lauded for its work, was clinical in Game 4.
T.J. Oshie’s two even-strength markers off ugly miscues in the Maple Leafs end, which, coupled with Ovechkin’s third goal in as many games, makes seven goals and 14 points for Washington’s top line through four games.
They have quietly had their way.
“We gotta make sure we’re taking care of the puck, especially at our blue line, especially when those top guys are out there,” Auston Matthews said. “If you turn the puck over, and they are coming back down on your net, they are really dangerous.”
Though the confidence and control the Capitals exuded in Game 4 indicated the Maple Leafs’ sudden status as equal participants is tenuous, the stalemate has been true so far.
The teams have 14 goals apiece, near-identical shot totals and scoring chances, and equally average performances in goal so far, as the series shifts back to Washington.
But it was hard not to wonder if the equivalence is fleeting.