As NHL playoff hockey returns to Toronto for the first time since 2013, a local boy whose family couldn’t afford to attend many games when he was younger will be in the building.
Ditching the Maple Leafs jerseys of his youth, Tom Wilson will try to beat his hometown team as his Washington Capitals attempt to rebound from a double-overtime loss that evened the first-round series at a game apiece. The Capitals’ Game 1 overtime hero , Wilson the Toronto native is back and ready to be public enemy No. 1 at Air Canada Centre.
”A couple years ago I got booed off the ice at the end of a game in my hometown, so we’ve crossed that one off the list,” Wilson said last week. ”I’m going to go out there to play my game and it’s going to feel good to beat anyone in the postseason, and obviously pretty cool to go in. The ACC is going to be absolutely electric, and there’s no doubt in my mind that that’s going to be charged up and fun to play in, and so as a hometown guy it’s going to be fun to go back and play there.”
Toronto coach Mike Babcock ruffled some feathers when he pointed out that Wilson is ”not as big of a concern” as other Capitals players like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Wilson agreed with that even after scoring in overtime to win Game 1, but the 23-year-old power forward specializes in getting under the skin of opponents and opposing fans.
”He’s probably so excited to go in there and be the villain and just do his thing,” Capitals winger Brett Connolly said. ”He’s a guy who does a lot of dirty work and (plays) a lot of hard minutes and sticks up for his teammates and gets in fights with guys that maybe you don’t want to at the time but he’s going to do it anyways because he’s a good teammate.”
Loved by teammates and despised by opponents, Wilson perhaps fittingly had a Darcy Tucker Maple Leafs jersey as a kid, a nod to the kind of player he has become. It speaks to how rare playoff games in Toronto have been recently that it was only 10 Maple Leafs playoff games ago that Tucker leveled Sami Kapanen in the final game of a 2004 second-round series loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.
Fast forward 13 years to Saturday, and Kapanen’s son, Kasperi, scored twice in Game 2, including the winner in the second overtime to send the series across the Canadian border tied at 1. Toronto was always going to be jacked up for the first home game of the playoffs but perhaps even more so now that the Maple Leafs have some serious momentum.
”It’ll be a great environment, it’ll be a playoff atmosphere,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said Sunday on a conference call. ”You’ll get chills down your spine when you’re on the bench for both teams.”
Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly, who played more than 40 minutes in Game 2 because of the length of the game and the season-ending leg injury to Roman Polak, said ”you can’t ask for much more” than getting a split in Washington and going home. Only five players are left from the last Toronto playoff team that made the playoffs and lost to the Boston Bruins: forwards Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk and Leo Komarov and defenseman Jake Gardiner.
It’ll be a new experience for Kapanen, Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Zach Hyman and Mitch Marner, but they got a taste in their playoff clincher against Pittsburgh. Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik was watching his former Penguins teammates and scouting the Maple Leafs in that one, and he has a good idea what to expect.
”I’m sure they’re pretty revved up. They haven’t had a playoff game in a while,” Orpik said. ”We got an experienced team in here. We know what it’s like to play on the road in the playoffs. You got to focus on what you can do and play the system that we’re supposed to. You can’t make mistakes there and give them extra chances to generate energy with the crowd.”