Justin Williams scored a 1:04 of overtime to give the Washington Capitals a 2-1 win in the fifth game of their opening round playoff series, pushing the Maple Leafs to the brink of elimination.
Williams once again showcased why the 2014 Conn Smythe Trophy winner is the best clutch player in the game today. His penchant for timely goals, particularly in the later games of playoff series, is unmatched.
In Games 5-7, @JustinWilliams is your guy.
— NHL (@NHL) April 22, 2017
The game took a nasty turn late in the first period when Nazem Kadri collided with Alex Ovechkin at the Capitals’ blue line, sending the Russian sniper to the ice clutching his left knee in agony. Unable to put any weight on his leg, Ovechkin needed the assistance of teammates to be escorted to the dressing room.
Pundits took to social media to voice their opinions, on either end of the spectrum, ranging from “low but clean” to “dirty and cheap” hit.
This observer believes the low check was dangerous, but legal within the parameters of the NHL rulebook. Whether the first point of contact that Kadri makes is Ovechkin’s thigh, or knee, is difficult to determine conclusively by reviewing replays, because the view of the initial impact is obscured by Kadri’s leg.
The officials had the option of calling Kadri for clipping, which would have resulted in an automatic major penalty due to the fact that Ovechkin was injured.
Instead, Kadri was assessed a two-minute minor. The Capitals took advantage when T.J. Oshie opened the scoring by jumping on a loose rebound after Nicklas Backstrom’s shot caromed off the post.
“(Barry Trotz) probably thought it should have been a major and I thought there should have been no penalty,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock later said in his post-game media address.
“That’s the beauty of the playoffs. The other night when Polak is done for the year, our bench thought it should have been a major and they thought it should have been no penalty. That’s kind of the playoffs.”
The Leafs evened the score at the six-minute mark of the second period, and once again it was the rookies grabbing the spotlight. Auston Matthews collected his third goal of the playoffs with an easy tap-in on the doorstep in front of Braden Holtby after William Nylander made a sensational cross-ice pass.
Matthews became the first rookie to score three goals in a post-season since Wendel Clark accomplished the feat in 1986.
Towards the end of the second period, Ovechkin and Kadri continued to agitate each other when Kadri absorbed a wicked slash to the back of the leg from Capitals’ defenceman Matt Niskanen. However, Toronto couldn’t capitalize on the ensuing power play which carried into the third period.
There was more intensity as regulation time came close to expiry. Leo Komarov was bloodied from a check from Washington blueliner Kevin Shattenkirk after being clipped by his – Komarov’s – own visor.
On the game-winning play Williams found open space on a Capitals’ rush after Marcus Johansson drew the attention of Matt Hunwick and Morgan Rielly behind the net, and Matthews missed guarding Williams, the trailing forward. Johansson dished off to Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Williams buried Kuznetsov’s pass, beating Frederik Andersen via the five-hole.
The game featured the fourth overtime in five outings in this series. The last time the Leafs had played four, or more, OT matches in a single series was in the 1951 Stanley Cup Final against Montreal. Coincidentally, Friday’s matchup came on the 66th anniversary of Bill Barilko’s famous Cup-clinching goal that defeated the Habs.
“You hate to give up the freebie but the bottom line is we’ve got to go home and win a game now because we want to be right here in overtime in game seven,” Babcock said. “I think it’s a good series, it’s a lot of fun and so let’s just keep enjoying ourselves.
Let’s go into Toronto and play right. Let’s not get all wound up by our crowd and try to wow them. Let’s just come out and play and take care of the puck.
In 2016, Rob wrote “Hockey’s Enforcers: A Dying Breed”, now available at Chapters and Indigo stores everywhere.