- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2017

Leading up to Thursday’s opener of the Washington Capitals‘ series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Justin Williams made his playoff philosophy clear.

“It’s pretty darn simple,” the Capitals forward said Tuesday. “We were kicked in the teeth last year. There’s only so many times you get kicked before you fight back and you overcome.”

It turned out to be Williams, whose playoff success (34 goals, three Stanley Cups) is well documented, doing the fighting for the better part the game. His two goals saved the Capitals in regulation and set the stage for Tom Wilson’s game-winner in overtime that gave Washington the 3-2 victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 1 Thursday at Verizon Center.

“Stick, he’s done a lot in this game in big moments,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said after the game. “He has a pretty calming effect on our group. Even on the bench, he always says the right things. You know, ‘Let’s just start playing here. We’re not playing, we’re standing around waiting for something to happen.’”

The Capitals did their fair share of waiting at the start of the game, and it cost them another couple blows to the incisors. Toronto center Mitch Marner scored just 1:35 into the first, and the Leafs came out faster and with more aggression.

Toronto had 10 players, including Marner, tasting the playoffs for the first time, but dictated the game’s pace and style just as the Capitals had promised they themselves would do.

“We gave them real easy access to the puck, I thought, today in the first 30 minutes,” Trotz said. “The last 30 minutes, it was a little bit better and therefore, we started to have some zone time and some of those zone times turned into opportunities. To me, it’s a really good wakeup call for us.”

The only energy the Capitals mustered in the first period came when center Lars Eller was sent to the penalty box for cross-checking and his teammates killed off the penalty without allowing a shot. Washington continued to turn the puck over on offense and make mental errors on defense, though, and Toronto went up 2-0 after 9:44 when defenseman Jake Gardiner scored unassisted.

The goal was initially waived off for goalie interference, but Toronto coach Mike Babcock successfully challenged the ruling. Capitals goalie Braden Holtby said he was surprised by the interference call anyway, and that the goal was a product of reaction time.

“A common theme throughout the night was they were putting a guy there before I get into place so that’s one adjustment we’ll have to make so I can get my read, get my top of my crease and fight for it,” Holtby said.

A pair of penalties by the Leafs helped get the Capitals on the board. Center Brian Boyle was sent to the box after 10:22 for interference, and center Zach Hyman followed him 30 seconds later for tripping, giving Washington 1:30 of 5-on-3. Just two seconds after Boyle’s time in the box was up, Williams scored, assisted by linemate T.J. Oshie and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.

“It’s a big goal,” Williams said. “Everything’s about momentum. They certainly had it to start and we kind of calmed down, settled the nerves and we did what we wanted to do: come back from two goals and now you keep the pressure on.”

As the Capitals found their composure, Holtby kept them in the game. At one point in the second period Toronto was outshooting Washington 12-7, but Holtby stopped every puck.

“We believe in ourselves here, we believe in our 60-minute game and I think that was a good thing,” Holtby said. “The first period, if it’s bad, we know we can outplay them the rest of the game.”

After 16 minutes, Williams answered that belief again. Defenseman Matt Niskanen sent the puck in front of the net and Williams finished the play, tapping the puck underneath Andersen’s pads and tying the game, 2-2.

“The shot, there was a lot of sticks in there,” Williams said. “I saw that he didn’t have it. I saw that he was unaware of where it was. I just went to the net and fortunately it popped there.”

Just after Williams‘ second goal, Toronto’s Matt Martin was sent to the box for cross-checking and the Capitals got another power play to maintain the momentum. They pulled even in shots midway through the third period, and finished regulation with a 38-35 advantage. It took a number of fantastic glove-saves from Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen to send the game to overtime.

That’s where Wilson won it, whipping the puck in behind Anderson after 5:15 in the overtime period. Wilson got the puck after a Toronto turnover and found himself right by the net. He heard a teammate, possibly Shattenkirk, calling for the puck behind him but his better instincts said to go for it.

“I just decided I was gonna rip it on net. No bad shots in overtime and it found the back of the net and obviously the celebration kind of started,” Wilson said.

The Capitals survived a few opening blows and bounced back, putting their opponents on shakier ground to hit from. After the game, Williams found Wilson in the tunnel heading back to the locker room. “It feels good, doesn’t it?” he asked.

“He’s scored those goals before and you know what it does,” Wilson said. “When you score those goals, you want more.”

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