WASHINGTON — The Toronto Maple Leafs put a scare in the Washington Capitals, but it was the favourites that prevailed in Game 1.
Toronto native Tom Wilson scored five minutes into overtime as the Caps came all the way back from a 2-0 first-period deficit, winning 3-2 on Thursday night.
Wilson stole a clearing attempt from Martin Marincin along the wall in the Toronto zone, firing high to beat Frederik Andersen, who was otherwise sharp with 41 saves.
Justin Williams netted a pair and Braden Holtby was sturdy with 35 stops as Washington went up 1-0 in the best-of-seven series, which continues with Game 2 on Saturday night.
Mitch Marner and Jake Gardiner both scored in defeat for the Leafs, trying to knock off the best team in hockey in their playoff appearance in four years.
The Leafs had nine players making their NHL playoff debuts in Game 1, but didn't look like it early. They came out full of pep against their more experienced Washington foes, flashing the speed and skill that helped them surprise the hockey world in making the post-season.
Marner scored the first goal less than two minutes in. He capitalized when James van Riemsdyk, below the goal-line, threw a rebound attempt off the post, the puck caroming right into the slot for the 19-year-old to push in.
The Memorial Cup MVP in 2016, Marner became the first Leafs rookie to score in a playoff game since Jeff Farkas in 2000. He looked at home early in his first playoff game, as did William Nylander, who flew around with the puck and fired four shots in the first 20 minutes.
Nylander said before the series that the Leafs had "nothing to lose" against the Caps, favourites to capture a first Stanley Cup this spring. Even Leafs head coach Mike Babcock prodded Washington as the team with all the pressure on its shoulders, recalling his Presidents' Trophy-winning Detroit team which lost in the first round in 2006.
Babcock was pleased that the Leafs were starting on the second night of the playoffs, glad that his players could get a taste of what might await them Thursday in Washington.
"The energy in the building is different and the energy in each shift is different," Babcock said. "So, you've got to find a way to bring your game within that game."
Their lead ballooned to two before 10 minutes had passed with Gardiner scoring a goal that was initially waved off on account of goalie interference. The call was overturned on the Leafs challenge with replays showing that Nazem Kadri eluded Holtby entirely in the crease.
Among the five Leafs left from the last Toronto playoff team in 2013, Gardiner picked off a Kevin Shattenkirk clearing attempt, slid into the middle of the ice and then let a shot go that trickled off a Capital before beating Holtby, the reigning Vezina trophy winner.
Packed with experience, Washington had only one player making his playoff debut: Brett Connolly, a former first round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Capitals eventually found their footing after the wobbly start and scored just as a two-man advantage expired. Williams, the king of post-season hockey with three Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe Trophy, found some room in the slot with Roman Polak scrambling and tucked a shot behind Andersen.
The Leafs were doing a fairly effective job limiting chances to that point, plucky and feisty in their defensive pursuits. Most impressive was their containment of Alex Oveckin and the Washington top line — the Russian captain held to one shots after 40 minutes. Key to those efforts was the trio of Nazem Kadri, Connor Brown and Leo Komarov along with the defensive pair of Gardiner and Polak.
Toronto had to shuffle its pairings around with Nikita Zaitsev, the top minute-eater from the regular season, sidelined by a suspected concussion. Matt Hunwick absorbed 26 minutes in his absence.
Andersen looked sharp in the Leafs crease until late in the second when he failed to find a Matt Niskanen shot that was right underneath his pads. Williams stuffed the loose puck in, pulling the Caps all the way back from the 2-0 deficit with his 35th career playoff goal and second of the game.
Things stayed tight early in the third as the atmosphere intensified behind a raucous Verizon Center crowd, clad almost entirely in Capitals red and chanting, "Let's go Caps!"
Marner nearly quieted the crowd when he raced in with van Riemsdyk, but his follow-up chance was stopped by Holtby.
Andersen was sharp at the other end in a third period mostly controlled by Washington. He stopped back-to-back attempts by Shattenkirk at one point, the Caps trade deadline addition finishing with nine shots.
With less than four minutes left, the Leafs goaltender denied Johansson, driving hard to the net, on a backhand set up by Evgeny Kuznetsov. He then made two terrific stops on Brooks Orpik and Andre Burakovksy early in the overtime period, the Leafs share of scoring opportunities slowing before Wilson's game-winner.