Long after the hugs from his teammates, the interview on the bench and the postgame media scrum, Capitals overtime hero Tom Wilson picked up his cellphone and unlocked the screen.
There were 91 text messages waiting for him.
“A lot of anonymous [texts] from Toronto that don’t want to be mentioned,” Wilson joked, referring to friends and family members from back home who cheer for the Maple Leafs but also have soft spot for the Caps’ fourth line right wing.
“I’m so privileged to have such good support groups in both cities and obviously lots of happy family and friends,” he added, “and lot of people who have hopped off the Leafs’ bandwagon onto the Caps’ bandwagon the last couple of years.”
The reason for Wilson’s cellphone blowing up, of course, was the dart of a goal he scored 5:15 into overtime of Game 1 on Thursday night. It was Wilson’s first playoff goal. It came against his hometown team. And it came two days after Leafs Coach Mike Babcock said the Leafs had more important players to worry about than a player like Tom Wilson, a heart-and-soul type who specializes in killing penalties, delivering big hits and standing up for his teammates.
On Friday morning, Coach Barry Trotz gave his players the option to skip the on-ice portion of practice. And many did. In fact, only seven players showed up.
Wilson, however, was among them, still sporting an ear-to-ear smile.
“Winnie, Beags and I have talked all year about contributing every single night,” the 23-year-old said of his OT winner. “We want to chip in offensively every single game we play. We take pride in our defensive game. We take pride in our own end. But that said, our [forward] depth needs to take over and we need to be able to chip in offensively.”
“It was a big goal for our line.”
The goal also helped the NHL’s top seeded team avoid a potential disaster. The youthful Leafs seized on a slow start by the Caps and jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the opening 10 minutes.
“We know we didn’t come out and play very good hockey,” Wilson said. “They came out with their fast, skilled game and created a little bit of havoc. I think there was so much lead-up to the series, I think maybe you saw that in the first period…I don’t know, no one can really put their finger on why they came out and got up 2-0. But that’s hockey. It woke us up for sure. Hopefully in Game 2, we come out and take it to them from the get-go.”
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Wilson didn’t want to make too big of a deal of what the goal could mean for himself or for his team. Still, he’s keenly aware of the importance of taking Game 1 and the outsized role grinders often play in the postseason.
“You look at other teams that have had success, like Chicago or L.A., they’ve had four lines that can play,” Wilson said. “Teams that don’t, often don’t make it far. [General Manager Brian MacLellan] has done a great job giving us four lines that can play. It’s too good a league to depend on the same guys every night. You have to have different lines that can step up. You need to have different guys that can step up.”
Asked what a goal like Wilson’s could do for a young player who is still searching for his offensive game at the NHL level, Coach Barry Trotz made a reference to John Druce, who scored a franchise record 14 playoff goals in 1990 after tallying just eight in the regular season.
“It’s confidence,” Trotz said. “Tom just scored against Toronto and it’s his hometown. We’ve had John Druce who scored a whole bunch of goals in playoffs. Once a guy starts getting a little bit of a feel, maybe it’s his time. The playoffs are a different animal. We talk about the importance of the depth in our lines, getting scoring from all four lines. We were able to get a winning goal on our fourth line.”