TORONTO—Compared to the regular season, the NHL playoffs are a different beast. The spaces become smaller, the battles that much more intense. It’s the type of stage where the greatest players rise to the occasion.
Which is why it’s strange that, so far in the first round of the 2017 playoffs, it is the beasts who are scoring goals and contributing to their team’s success in a big way.
Take the Washington Capitals’ Tom Wilson. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound forward scored seven goals in each of the last two regular seasons and logged 296 total penalty minutes in the process. Not exactly a prototypical sniper.
And yet in the Caps’ first round series against his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs, Wilson has come alive. He’s scored three goals in four games, including the overtime winner in Game 1 and another two in the first period of Wednesday’s 5-4 Game 3 win.
“You take ‘em as they come,” he said.
It sounds simple, and maybe it is. But Wilson is not alone in terms of players who aren’t normally accustomed to finding the back of the net doing so through the first round. Zack Kassian, a 217-pound bruiser who logged just seven goals and 101 penalty minutes through the regular season, has two goals through four games with the Edmonton Oilers. Blues defenseman Joel Edmundson had three goals through the regular season and has two through the first round so far. Rangers tough guy Tanner Glass notched the first goal of the postseason against the Canadiens.
And while the Alex Ovechkins of the world are still contributing offensively, having players like Wilson step up at a time when they’re needed is exactly the kind of depth that makes the Capitals a tough team to write off.
“It’s that time of the year,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz after the game. “There’s some fabulous heroes. Not always the ones you think that are going to be there.”
Thanks to the unlikely contributor, Washington finds itself even with the Leafs with two wins apiece, though it’s not where the Caps pictured themselves at this juncture. Still, the newfound scoring threat says the team is keeping calm.
“We didn’t want to hit the panic button at all,” Wilson said. “You want to stay even keel.”
Wilson also showed some of that resolve with a calm and steady hand in the first period as he dove in behind Capitals goalie Braden Holtby to stop a loose puck from sliding into the net.
“You know what, [Holtby] has been stellar for us. I know it’s going to probably hit him. I just had an eye on it that no one else did. I just tried to make sure it stayed out of the net.”
Players like Wilson, a former first-round pick, very often go overlooked throughout the regular season, especially on a Capitals roster so loaded with firepower. And yet Wilson is also the type of player to keep things simple and buy into coach Barry Trotz’s game plan, which included shuffling the lines ahead of game 4. Wilson was moved up to the third line with Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky.
“He played the game the right way,” Trotz said. “He played hard. He went to the net. He got rewarded.”
Wilson towed the good guy line after the game, giving credit to his teammates and refusing to allow much of the spotlight to shine on himself despite adding to his personal highlight reel.
“We’ve got to have a good answer for them and tonight, for the most part, we did,” he said.
Wilson knew there were people watching him tonight: the Toronto native had his dad, mom, brother, girlfriend, brother’s fiancé and “Grampy” in the Air Canada Centre crowd for the game. By the final buzzer, there were plenty of extra eyes on him, too, as his moment in the spotlight. He’s not the player many would have expected to be tied for the lead in goals on the Capitals through four games, but nobody tunes into the playoffs to see the expected results unfold anyway. Tom Wilson is now living proof of that.
“He’s a growing young player who is physically very strong,” said Trotz of Wilson. “He’s growing to be a good penalty killer. His game continues to grow.”