TORONTO – The Stanley Cup playoffs prefer their heroes homegrown and unlikely. But not quite like this.
In Game 1, Tom Wilson stretched out a long arm to catch a puck, dropped it, and whipped home the overtime winner for his first-ever post-season goal.
In Game 4, Wilson was a human three-goal swing, the difference in a 5-4 Washington Capitals victory that turned the series into a best-of-three as Dart Guy powders his face for another D.C. roadie.
The wonderful irony here is that Wilson is a born-and-bred Torontonian, a kid who grew up skating local rinks and worshiping the very Maple Leafs he keeps raking this spring.
Darcy Tucker was his guy, and Wilson is buddies with Tucker's newphew. All smiles and adrenaline after Wednesday’s win, Wilson half-joked that Tucker should quit tweeting “Go, Leafs, go!” and throw him a bone.
“When you’re a kid, you always have big dreams. I was lucky enough to fulfill them,” said Wilson, high off the first two-goal performance of his NHL life.
“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.”
The majority of Capitals have taken optional skates off this series, understandable given their veteran status and the three OTs. Never Wilson.
On Tuesday, he was one of the few who skated out in Etobicoke on the off-day, one of the fewer who spoke to reporters afterward, and one of the fewest who delivered his words confidently down 2-1.
He stressed the need for dirty goals and havoc, the creation of urgency. Wilson said the Caps need to erase luck from the equation and take care of business in regulation.
He pointed to the opening of Game 3, when the Caps exploded to leads of 2-0 and 3-1.
“If we’re playing like that, I don’t think any team can play with us,” Wilson asserted. “It doesn’t matter if we won the Jennings. It comes down to getting the job done in the playoffs.
“Protect the house. Protect Holts.”
Wednesday morning, coach Barry Trotz promoted Wilson to the third line to give Toronto a big body to worry about and jump-start Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky.
Or, as Trotz put it: "He's Tom Wilson. Everybody knows who Tom Wilson is. That's what he brings."
Then Wilson made all of Wednesday’s words and his North Toronto dreams real.
In the nick of time was Wilson, a six-foot-four, 215-pound life preserver plunging headfirst into the blue paint and swiping the puck away from the possibility of yet another blown two-goal lead.
“Those plays kinda go into slow-mo,” the winger recalled. “I could see it on his pants and knew with the shape of the puck it’s going to fall down. I had time to jump in and make a save.”
After dislodging himself from the twine like a spider’s prey escaped, Wilson chugged 200 feet, parked his rear in front of Toronto’s Frederik Andersen and backhand-tipped Lars Eller’s shot into the Leafs goal.
For good measure, Wilson sniped the next one, too. Within minutes, his Wikipedia page noted his invention of the “Tom Wilson Hat Trick”—when one scores two and saves one in the same game.
As was the case in Game 3, Wilson had a small crew of family screaming red in a sea of blue: Mom, Dad, his brother and brother’s fianceé, and Grampy.
“They wished another outcome,” Wilson said. “They got it today.”
Dial 416-485-0301. Listen to the automated message.
You’ll hear a kind, old Ontario rink manager’s voice sounding exactly like you imagine a kind, old Ontario rink manager’s voice sounds like.
Thank you for calling North Toronto Arena, home rink of Tom Wilson, No. 43 of the Washington Capitals, now in his fourth year of making the Caps a hard team to play against and adding some offence as well….
Over the past seven days, that offence is a joyous revelation for Washington. A first-round draft pick in 2012, the 23-year-old Wilson has never registered more than seven goals and never less than 133 penalty minutes in a season. He has three in a week, all of ’em biggies.
He's outscoring the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2.
“Nothing against Wils because he works hard and all that, but he’s not as big of a concern as a lot of people on their team,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock had fairly, if fatefully, said before the series began.
After Wilson’s Game 1 dagger, the social-media backlash from his hometown was so vicious, he considered deleting his Twitter account.
“You catch a lot of flak, but that’s just passion,” the grinder reasoned, as @tom_wilso lives.
“There’s people that like ya. There’s people that hate ya. I didn’t want to come into Toronto and be liked by the fans.”
So add Wilson’s name, again, to 2017’s growing list of the improbable playoff conquerors.
Zack Kassian, Melker Karlsson, Joel Edmundson, Jake Guentzel, Kevin Fiala, Tanner Glass, Kasperi Kapanen… and we’re only a week into this sucker.
“It’s that time of year. There’s some fabulous heroes. Not always the ones you think are going to be there,” Trotz said.
“You always love the guy who doesn’t get a lot of recognition in the regular season coming up big.”
He's Tom Wilson. Everybody knows who Tom Wilson is. He's Heart Guy.