TORONTO — In a way, the Washington Capitals felt like they had just passed a kidney stone.
The third period had been 20 painful minutes followed by joyful relief when they realized it was over and they had held on for a 5-4 victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference First Round at Air Canada Centre on Wednesday.
Having evened the best-of-7 series 2-2, they head back to Verizon Center for Game 5 on Friday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports 2, CSN-DC).
“I just thought our leaders led tonight,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “They led in the right way. They were saying the right things. They were battling through things. We didn’t always agree with what was happening out there, but we battled through it. For the most part, I thought we hung in there and found out a little bit about ourselves as well.”
The Capitals have talked about owning the big moments since they didn’t do it enough in losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Second Round last season. They even have sweatshirts that say, “Own the big moments,” on the back.
There were almost too many of them to count Wednesday. Start with Tom Wilson‘s incredible sequence in the first period when he prevented the Maple Leafs from scoring a goal that would have tied the game 2-2 and scored twice in 2:23 to make it 4-1.
First, a Morgan Rielly shot from the right faceoff circle trickled through Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby and was rolling toward the goal line before Wilson dove into the crease and knocked it away with his stick with 6:34 left in the first.
“I just had an eye on it that kind of no one else did and tried to make sure that it stayed out of the net,” Wilson said. “Luckily, it did.”
Wilson, a Toronto native with a bunch of family in the building and the overtime hero in Washington’s 3-2 victory in Game 1, then got up and raced down to the other end to be in front of the net in time to deflect in Lars Eller‘s shot from the bottom of the left circle with 6:19 left in the period. Wilson scored again by finishing off a 2-on-1 with Andre Burakovsky with 3:56 left in the first.
So instead of being 2-2, the Capitals led 4-1 mostly because of Wilson.
“I probably shouldn’t have let that puck get through me, and he made up for my mistake there, goes down and scores a goal,” Holtby said. “Those are the plays that I think we’re realizing we have to make in order to have success in the playoffs.”
The Capitals were able to maintain control even after the Maple Leafs pulled within 4-2 on James van Riemsdyk‘s power-play goal 5:39 into the second period. But the game changed in the final 6.3 seconds of the second.
First, Eller was given a delay of game penalty for a faceoff violation. Then, with three seconds remaining in the period, Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik slashed Mitch Marner’s stick out of his hands, giving the Maple Leafs a 5-on-3 power play for 1:57.
Toronto had 1:54 left on the two-man advantage with a clean sheet of ice to begin the third period. Holtby made five saves during the 5-on-3, and with help from defenseman Matt Niskanen, who played the first 2:01 of the period, John Carlson, Nate Schmidt, Jay Beagle and Nicklas Backstrom, the Capitals survived it without giving up goal.
“A penalty kill can deflate you a little bit or it can shift the momentum back into your favor,” right wing T.J. Oshie said. “Playoff momentum is huge and like their 5-on-3 [kill] in Game 3, ours tonight was important for the momentum of the game.”
The Capitals thought they had an insurance goal when Schmidt’s shot from the left point went in 8:11 into the third period, but it was disallowed for goaltender interference by Backstrom.
Then the Capitals seemed certain some unseen force was working against them when Auston Matthews scored with eight minutes remaining to pull Toronto within 4-3. A Justin Williams clearing pass went off linesman Shane Heyer outside the blue line, allowing the Maple Leafs to quickly re-enter the zone and get the goal from Matthews.
With the fans in Air Canada Centre going wild, Washington was undeterred, capitalizing on a turnover by Toronto defenseman Connor Carrick when Oshie beat goaltender Frederik Andersen between the pads from the right circle for a 5-3 lead 59 seconds after Matthews’ goal.
“It hit the [linesman] and they score after,” said Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, whose first-period power-play goal made it 2-0. “So kind of the hockey god was on our side and gave us the opportunity to score, and [Oshie], obviously, a huge goal.”
But the Capitals’ work wasn’t done. After Oshie iced the puck shooting for the vacated Maple Leafs net with 34.8 seconds left, Tyler Bozak knocked in a bouncing puck with 26.5 seconds left to bring Toronto within 5-4.
It wasn’t until after Oshie dropped down to block a shot by Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner and Backstrom dove to clear the puck down the ice that the Capitals were finally able to exhale and celebrate their series-tying victory.
“We got tested in the third period,” Trotz said. “You talk about your resolve. You’re playing so well and you have to kill off a 5-on-3. They had a goal that goes off the [linesman] and we get one that is called off. We’re like, ‘OK, what else is going to happen?’ That type of thing. But our bench didn’t waver. They stayed on it. They stayed true to form, they battled through it. I think they showed a lot of resiliency.
“Everybody from our goaltender out was resilient today.”