Capitals villain Wilson torments Toronto with offense
TORONTO — Tom Wilson scored seven goals in 82 games this season.
The Washington Capitals winger has three big ones in four playoff games so far.
You have to love springtime hockey.
“It’s that time of year, [with] some fabulous heroes — but not always the ones you think are going to be there,” said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz after his team’s series-tying win against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night.
“[Wilson’s] game continues to grow,” added Trotz. “I’m real happy for him.”
NHL playoff history is filled with examples of bottom-six forwards owning big moments at this time of year, and Wilson has done just that so far in a wild first-round series between his top-seeded Capitals and the underdog Maple Leafs.
Following Wilson’s overtime heroics in Game 1, you one kind of had a feeling he would try to steal a bit of the spotlight again against his hometown team.
Wilson grew up just a few miles from the Air Canada Centre, dreaming of one day becoming a playoff hero for the Maple Leafs.
On Wednesday night, he scored twice in a huge 5-4 win over his favorite boyhood team, three games after sealing the first game of the series for Washington with an OT marker.
“When you’re a kid, you always have big dreams, and I was kind of lucky enough to fulfill them,” Wilson said on Wednesday night. “It’s a huge privilege. A lot of guys 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. I thought all our guys stepped up tonight. There was good scoring from every line.”
Wilson’s friends and family congregated in the stands at Air Canada Centre. Years ago, they would have been sporting Leafs sweaters. But there they were, wearing perma-smiles after the game — and Caps gear.
“It’s tough. I think Toronto’s got a great team,” said Keven Wilson, Tom’s father. “(Leafs assistant GM and draft guru) Mark Hunter, in his recruiting, and Babs (head coach Mike Babcock) behind the bench, they’ve done an amazing job. In September I said they would make the playoffs. If they beat Washington, I’ll be cheering for Toronto. …
“But my kid plays for Washington,” added Keven, who coached his son for many years during Tom’s development into a high-end prospect, with a laugh. “So guess what?”
Keven Wilson brought up another Hunter brother while recounting the tale of how former Capitals GM George McPhee selected his son in the first round, 16th overall, in the 2012 draft.
As the story goes, according to Keven, McPhee made the pick after getting a rousing endorsement of the younger Wilson from Dale Hunter. Hunter — the owner and head coach of the London Knights — gushed about how Wilson had stood out for the Plymouth Whalers junior team when they faced his Knights in the Ontario Hockey League playoffs that year.
“Dale said that Tom was like a man against boys in that playoff series,” McPhee, now the GM of the expansion Vegas Knights franchise, told ESPN.com over the phone on Thursday morning from Slovakia, where he’s scouting the world under-18 hockey championships.
“I remember seeing Tom play at the (Top) Prospects game. On his first shift, he skated all the way down the ice and laid somebody out,” McPhee said, recalling the annual game that showcases NHL draft hopefuls. “He was hard not to notice.”
McPhee also vividly recalls his pre-draft conversation with Wilson. “His interview with us was outstanding,” said McPhee. “He’s a high, high character person.”
Those are not words you’ll often hear from other teams or their fans about Wilson. The 23-year-old winger is viewed as villain No. 1 in many NHL rinks for his history of big hits — some of them borderline — as well as his willingness to drop the gloves with all comers.
“He’s always been rambunctious,” said his father, flashing another smile. “His brother is five years older [than Tom] and was always inclusive. Tom grew up thinking that playing with guys five years older was what you did. So he went to play major junior at 16. He’s just out being rambunctious and loving every minute of it. He loves to play.”
As for Wilson’s unexpected — and unlikely — offense in this playoff series, it’s worth remembering that in his last year of junior in Plymouth he did put up 58 points (including 23 goals) in 48 games. So, he can score. Hence the first-round draft pick pedigree. And while Wilson has mostly been a fourth-liner, Trotz has not hesitated to move him up in the past — as he did again for Game 4, promoting Wilson to the third line with Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky.
Trotz gave the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Wilson a specific assignment when he informed him of the move on Wednesday morning.
“He wanted me to stay at the net and create space for my linemates,” said Wilson. “Burky is really good with the puck, Lars is a workhorse. [So I] just kind of added a big body [that the Leafs] have to worry about a little bit in front of the net and give our guys space.”
That big body made his coach look smart. Before he scored his two goals in Game 4, Wilson made the save of the night. About halfway through the first period, as the puck slipped through Caps goalie Braden Holtby‘s pads, a diving Wilson whisked it away before it crossed the line, protecting Washington’s 2-1 lead.
“I knew it would be exciting,” Wilson said of this series against his hometown team. “There’s a great atmosphere here, great fans, we all know that. It’s fun to win in Toronto, for sure. And it’ll be even more fun if we get the win and take the series.”