The Toronto Maple Leafs slipped from the tightrope they have walked in this playoff series and now are hanging on for dear life.
They were done in for the second time in the series by Washington Capitals forward Justin Williams, a seize-the-moment kind of guy whose legacy as a playoff hero is now written in stone. In the remarkable four overtime games that have been played in this first-round NHL playoff series, Williams scored the winning goal in two of them.
His latest came one minute and four seconds into overtime on Friday night to give the Capitals a 2-1 win at the Verizon Center. The Caps now lead the first-round NHL playoff series 3-2. They can eliminate the Leafs in Game 6 of the best-of-seven affair on Sunday night in Toronto.
Williams, 35, has three Stanley Cup rings from his days with the Carolina Hurricanes and the Los Angeles Kings. His scoring exploits, particularly in the seventh and deciding games of playoff series, earned Williams the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP when the Kings won in 2014.
“Mr. Game 7. It’s all it takes,” said Capitals forward Alexander Ovechkin, the central figure in a sub-plot that played large earlier in the game. “One shot and we get the [series] lead. Right now we going back to play in Toronto and try to win there.”
The Maple Leafs had their chances to grab the win in regulation time but were frustrated by Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby. He took some criticism when the Capitals won 5-4 in Game 4 but was sharp all evening in Game 5 with 24 saves.
Also sharp were the Washington penalty killers. They smothered four Leafs power plays.
The Leafs now have to fight off the pressure of playing in an elimination game on Sunday. They say the ability to simply play that carried them this far is still with them and they know they are an even match for the Capitals.
“The scores indicated it,” Leafs defenceman Matt Hunwick said. “I think four overtimes, [there is] not a lot to choose. Their power play’s been good but five-on-five I think we feel pretty confident in our game.”
The Capitals scored first in what was a comparatively more conservative game than the previous four in the series. T.J. Oshie scored late in the first period on a power play that came as the result of a hip check by Leafs centre Nazem Kadri on Ovechkin, which fostered much ill will over the rest of the game.
Auston Matthews, fresh off his selection as one of three finalists for the Calder Trophy, which goes to the NHL’s rookie-of-the-year, tied the score six minutes into the second period. The goal came at the end of a tremendous shift by Matthews’ line, as the Capitals were hemmed in their own zone.
He said before the game he thinks he is getting better as his first NHL playoff experience moves along.
“Yeah, I just think each game, myself personally I feel like I’ve gotten better,” Matthews said. “You kind of get more comfortable each and every night to expect not too much space, it’s pretty physical, a lot of 50-50 battles that you got to make sure you’re winning.
“I think that’s kind of been the key for us, for everybody, just trying to get better each game and tonight’s a big one for us.”
The drama in regulation time was provided by Leafs centre Nazem Kadri, who upended Ovechkin with a controversial hit late in the first period. Kadri threw a hip check that knocked Ovechkin out of the game briefly with what appeared to be a left knee or leg injury.
Kadri threw a classic hip check on Ovechkin at 17:32, flipping the star over and he landed on his left leg. Ovechkin lay on the ice for several minutes and had to be helped to the dressing room. However, Ovechkin sent a buzz through the crowd when he returned for the second period.
Ovechkin was out for the opening faceoff and then flattened Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner for the second time in the game. The game grew nastier in the wake of Kadri’s hit.
Kadri was given a tripping penalty for the hit, although it was a hip check. There might have been grounds to call Kadri for clipping, which is when a player lowers his body and throws it at or below the knees of an opponent. However, the replays showed Kadri hit Ovechkin on the thigh, above his knee.
“I thought I got right on the puck and then tried to get a piece of him. He tried to get out of the way, it’s not like I stuck my knee out,” Kadri said. “It happened really quick. From what I saw he’s okay.
“I’m hoping he’s okay. It's a pretty tender area. You don't want that to be an extended injury. I’m glad he came back. He was running around a little bit when he came back, so he must have been fine.
Ovechkin went after Kadri in the second period. He gave Kadri a jab on the arm and then Capitals defenceman Matt Niskanen chopped Kadri on the left knee with his stick. That drew a penalty for slashing at 19:34 while Kadri and Caps forward Tom Wilson were given minor penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct in the ensuing scrum. Ovechkin also skated toward the Toronto bench and offered some thoughts.
On further review, Kadri wasn’t so sure he was happy to see Ovechkin return.
“Ah, I’m not quite sure I was happy to see him come back on the ice,” he said. “For sure, I’ve got a lot of respect for that guy. But at the end of the day I’m cheating my teammates if I don’t try to get a piece of him because he’s dumping the puck in and going around our defencemen.”
Ovechkin said there was nothing serious about his injury and that while he was in the dressing room he watched his teammates capitalize on the power play. He was non-committal about whether or not Kadri’s hit was clean.
“Yeah I just needed a little break,” he said. “I was watching TV. Just have a Coke and enjoy the match.
“It’s playoffs. I didn’t watch the replay, but if it’s dirty it’s dirty. League going to watch it and if not, it doesn’t matter right now.”Report Typo/Error