TORONTO — The Toronto Maple Leafs got their toughest test yet from the best team in hockey.
Tom Wilson and T.J. Oshie both scored twice and Alex Ovechkin notched his third goal of the playoffs as the Washington Capitals evened the best-of-seven first round series at two games apiece, dropping the Leafs 5-4 in Game 4 on Wednesday night.
Zach Hyman, James van Riemsdyk, Auston Matthews and Tyler Bozak all scored in defeat for Toronto, which made a late charge, while Frederik Andersen surrendered five goals on 27 shots.
Braden Holtby made 30 saves at the other end as the favoured Caps regained momentum with the series shifting back to Washington for Game 5 on Friday night.
Leafs coach Mike Babcock saw the Oilers get throttled 7-0 by the Sharks on Tuesday night and was wary of such an outcome for his team in Game 4. It was apparent that it might just go that way early with Washington popping for a pair of goals in the first five minutes and four before the opening period was done.
Oshie got the first one for the Caps when he capitalized on a Nate Schmidt point shot sent purposefully wide of the net. Ovechkin added the next one when he was left wide open for a one-time blast on a Washington power play.
The script was familiar to Game 3 when the Leafs also went down 2-0 in the first five minutes, but unlike that game — an overtime victory — the club never did recover. While they pulled back within one on Hyman's first career playoff goal 42 seconds after the Ovechkin marker, the Caps struck again for two more in a span of less than three minutes — both by Wilson, a Toronto native.
The 23-year-old was everywhere on both goals.
Moved up in the lineup for Game 4 as head coach Barry Trotz looked for a spark, Wilson first pulled back a Morgan Rielly shot from the goal-line after it snuck through the pads of Holtby. He then raced the other way and deflected Lars Eller's harmless shot from the sideboards past Andersen.
On his next shift, Wilson barreled over Rielly near the Washington blue line and then finished off a two-on-one sequence with Andre Burakovsky.
Before the series Babcock was asked about the pest-potential of Wilson, who also scored the Game 1 overtime winner, and said: "Nothing against Wilson because he works hard and all that, but he's not as big a concern as lots of people on their team."
The Leafs were outshot 15-6 in the first by a Caps opponent that looked far more like the Presidents' Trophy-winning team most expected. It was Washington that won the majority of battles and races, those in white sweaters often hogging the puck for long stints in the Toronto zone.
Trotz was expecting his team's best game yet, describing them as "pretty focused" and in a "real good, confident mood" on Wednesday morning.
"I think we know it's a crucial game for us," Capitals defenceman Brooks Orpik said before the game. "Win this one and it's best-of-three with home ice."
For the Leafs conversely, the game proceeded much as Babcock feared it would.
Citing the example of Edmonton and San Jose on Wednesday morning, Babcock said: "One team relaxes and feels pretty good about themselves, talks to everybody and they all tell you how great they're doing and the other team gets prepared."
Whether that was indeed the case on Wednesday night, his team simply looked nothing like the speedy, skilled group which swiped two of the first three games. They struggled to complete a pass, gave up more quality chances than usual, were sloppy with the puck or simply pushed off it when they did have it by a hungrier opponent.
The Leafs had only five offensive zone faceoffs at even-strength through two periods compared to 14 for the Caps.
Van Riemsdyk brought Toronto within two when he scored early in the second on a power play, but chances otherwise were minimal against Holtby.
Puck possession stood at 65 per cent in Washington's favour through 40 minutes.
The Leafs did catch a break in the waning seconds of the middle period when Eller was called for putting his hand on the puck. Orpik was bounced three seconds later for slashing Mitch Marner.
Toronto pelted Holtby with five shots with nearly two full minutes of a five-on-three advantage, but couldn't score.
Washington then appeared to go up 5-2 with just under 12 minutes to go, but that apparent goal from Schmidt was waved off immediately on goalie interference. The Caps challenged the play, which saw Nicklas Backstrom get tangled up with Andersen, but the initial call was confirmed.
Matthews pulled the Leafs back within one about four minutes later with his second of the playoffs, but Oshie increased the deficit back to two when he beat Andersen 59 seconds after that.
Bozak brought Toronto back within one with 26 seconds left, but that was as close as they would come.