Unfazed by the magnitude of the moment, the Toronto Maple Leafs proved they could get the jump on the NHL’s most favoured playoff team.
Unfortunately for Mike Babcock’s young group, however, the Washington Capitals proved they could rally from a two-goal deficit and deliver the expected result—albeit off an unexpected stick.
“We got a little bit of a wake-up call,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “I’m sure you’ll see a different team next game.”
Here are eight takeaways from a hoot of an opener, which the Caps snatched 3-2 in OT.
Toronto boy plays overtime hero, which is bad for Toronto
Playoff time spells unlikely heroes, and two days in, we’ve already met a few of them.
Joel Edmundson, Melker Karlsson, and now Tom Wilson.
The Toronto-born fourth-line winger capped Washington’s 3-2 come-from-behind overtime victory when he threw a wrister on net from along the half boards and beat Frederik Andersen short-side. It’s a puck the goalie should’ve had.
“There’s no bad shots,” said Wilson post-game. He’s never had more than seven goals and never less than 133 penalty minutes in a year. This was his first playoff tally. “I just got the puck there and let ’er rip.”
Experience 1, Enthusiasm 0
When you’re young, you believe experience is overrated. As you age, you rely on it.
The poise exhibited by the battled-tested Capitals, after puckering early, revealed a group that could seize momentum back after giving it away.
The Caps came out coughing up pucks, allowing softies to squeak through, catching edges, committing careless offsides and icings, and digging a 2-0 hole in the first 10 minutes of the game. Then shook off their jitters with the help of a broken stick and a power-play goal.
Thursday marked the first playoff game for nine Maple Leafs, who entered with a combined 386 games of post-season experience to Washington’s 1,043.
Toronto’s Brian Boyle had 100 of those.
“Just embrace it. It’s so much fun,” a prophetic Boyle told reporters earlier in the day. “There’s going to be momentum swings. There’s going to be ups and downs. We’re gonna have fun.”
Oh, there were swings. And, oh, it was fun. Matthews blocking shots, Andersen throwing hip checks, and two speedy, talent-laden teams firing a combined 81 shots on net.
Marner shoots, scores, but more importantly shoots
For weeks, Babcock has been encouraging Mitchell Marner, the Leafs’ assist leader (42), to pull the trigger more often himself.
The 19-year-old rookie promptly scored the series’ opening goal 95 seconds in, pouncing on a juicy rebound resulting from a 3-on-2 rush.
With that, Marner became the first Maple Leafs teenager to score in the post-season since Daniel Marois in 1988.
“You’ve watched it your whole life hoping to be in that moment,” Marner told reporters at the morning skate. “And now it’s finally here.”
Babcock smartly uses coach’s challenge
Jake Gardiner’s first-period goal, a muffin from the point, was initially called off because the officials believed Nazem Kadri interfered with Braden Holtby in the crease. He did not.
Gardiner’s goal was ruled legit after Babcock’s challenge, putting the road team up 2-zip halfway through the first frame and giving Gardiner an impressive six points through his first seven career playoff games.
Did Scott Oake rile up Mr. Game 7?
The between-periods, two-question hockey player interview can usually be described as the opposite of must-see TV. Not tonight.
Hockey Night in Canada’s Scott Oake floated the idea to Justin Williams that the heavily favoured Capitals, down 2-1 after 20 minutes, came into the game tight and nervous.
Williams — he of three Stanley Cup rings, 87 playoff points, and a perfect 7-0 record in Game 7s — certainly wasn’t buying Oake’s theory.
“You need to seriously pump the brakes a little bit. It’s the first period of what we expect to be a long series,” said Williams, who had six shots.
“People are going to talk, and we understand that. The only way to stop them from talking is get it done. We’re going to keep our heads down, shut up ourselves, and let our play speak for itself.”
If Oake had handed the mic to Williams, the player would’ve dropped it.
Then the veteran winger went out, popped in a loose puck Andersen had lost in his feet, and knotted the game at two with the fourth two-goal game of his storied playoff life.
Carlson in, Zaitsev out
There was some doubt that defenceman John Carlson—the most-used Capital this season (22:42 average ice time)—would play in Game 1. He did, but his numbers were far from great.
Carlson broke up a Leafs 2-on-1 rush with the score tied in the third, but his 43.3 Corsi rating ranked second-worst on his team.
Much more dangerous from the blue line was deadline pickup Kevin Shattenkirk, who registered a game-high nine shots on goal. Dude was buzzing.
Toronto’s ailing top-four defenceman, Nikita Zaitsev, was not available, and is still in doubt for Game 2. Zaitsev’s sub, Martin Marincin, actually had positive possession numbers, but it was his failed defensive zone clear that led to the Wilson winner.
Maple Leafs and Babsocks get Parliament shoutout
Wondering if Toronto is just a wee bit excited for its first taste of Leafs playoff action in four Aprils?
The blue-and-white swarm hanging on every scoring chance at Maple Leaf Square was one thing.
Another was Beaches MP Nate Erskine-Smith showing off a makeshift Babsocks necktie in Parliament and shouting out the team.
“It’s game day, Mr. Speaker. Go, Leafs, go!”
Holy moly, how ’bout them goalies?
Vezina contender Holtby took 10 minutes to get dialed in, and Andersen missed on the game’s most important shot, but as a whole, the netminding at both ends of the Verizon Center was Grade A: smart positioning, calm under pressure, and quick glove hands.
Holtby finished with 35 saves and a .946 save percentage; Andersen stopped 41 pucks and posted a .932 save percentage. Both goalies improved upon their already-solid playoff numbers. Shame one of them had to take an L.
Watching from Texas, Hitchcock provides the kicker
Ken Hitchcock, former and brand-new head coach of the Dallas Stars, gave a wonderfully candid interview on Prime Time Sports (do yourself a favour and check it out here) and was asked to assess the Maple Leafs–Capitals series a few hours before puck drop.
“Two of my best friends in hockey are going to play each other,” Hitch began, referring to Babcock and Trotz. “This is when you see No-Nonsense Mike. This is his time of year.
“I know they’re the underdog, but if Barry opens the door a little bit, Mike will kick it right in.”
Tune in Saturday, when the Maple Leafs will again come a-knocking.