After enduring 19 angst-filled years since they won a first-round series, the Maple Leafs were finally on the right side of a handshake line.
As fans celebrated at the Maple Leaf Square tailgate, the rest of the GTA was able to leap off the fence as to whether this team would break out or break their hearts again in an 11th elimination game loss. But the 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lighting, underlining the first three-win road overtime series in team history, changes that.
John Tavares scored at 4:35 of overtime as the Leafs took a best-of-seven for the first time since the opening round of 2004, when the late Pat Quinn was coach – before a generation was born and after it reached voting age.
They took out the three-time Cup finalists, a hard task even with the wear and tear of the Bolts’ 13 playoffs series since 2020. And who thought the Leafs would move on before the record-breaking regular season pennant winning Boston Bruins? The B’s must survive a Game 7 on Sunday against the plucky Florida Panthers, who refused to exit after trailing 3-1. Winner meets the Leafs.
From Morgan Rielly, the longest serving Leaf, to core members of the Shanaplan, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, this was the long-awaited spring-in their-step moment. But even this foothill seemed like scaling Mount Everest, given the difficult preceding years for the team and its fan base.
Like an abdominal scar that wouldn’t fade, the line of post-season failures runs through many post-season guttings.
It started with a club-record seven straight years out of the playoffs, bookended by two NHL lockouts. The 2013 team under Randy Carlyle surprised everyone in a shortened schedule by ending the drought, only to blow a 4-1 lead in Game 7 with Boston on the ropes.
Three more years in the wilderness followed as “The Shanaplan’ took shape. While no one faulted the young Leafs for a solid effort in their 2017 playoff return against a prime-time Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals, Boston notched two more Game 7 wins at TD Garden, out-scoring the Leafs 12-5.
With coach Mike Babcock faulted for the handling of his young stars, Sheldon Keefe arrived.
But his Leafs scored just 10 in the five-game COVID bubble series at SBA, from a dramatic overtime comeback against Columbus to being shut out in the deciding match.
Captain John Tavares was kayoed in Game 1 of the Canadian lodge playoffs versus Montreal and though the Leafs recovered to take a 3-1 lead, they couldn’t break Carey Price or his defence in another loss to a lower-ranked club.
The most recent rejection was last May, up 3-2 on the Lightning, yet unable to close out a one-goal lead in the third period at Amalie before a 2-1 Game 7 loss where plugger Nick Paul scored both.
But Saturday’s result is why Tavares signed long-term here, what drove the trades for Cup veterans Ryan O’Reilly and Luke Schenn. It’s what called Mark Giordano home to work under a low-ball contract and meant so much to Scarborough’s Michael Bunting and Wayne Simmonds.
Also breathing easier is the hockey office, led by club president Brendan Shanahan, whose own role was coming under scrutiny with each spring failure. He’s been rewarded for his faith in general manager Kyle Dubas through the post-season hex, with the optics now much better if he gives the GM a new contract. Keefe also has something tangible to show for back-to-back 100-point regular seasons.
But it’s still only one of four rounds – in a shrinking Cup window for the Leafs’ core.
Two trends had dogged the Leafs in these 11 eliminations, minuscule time holding a lead and zero power play goals. They made Matthews’s opening goal stand up more than 10 minutes before Steven Stamkos’s equalizer.
Toronto went 0-for-2 with the extra man in the first period with just a couple of quality shots despite controlling the puck. That dragged them to 0-for-22, including nothing on eight chances against the Bolts through the past four games with the series on the line. Just as vitally, when the make-up calls came, there was nothing for the Lightning either.
The Leafs integrated seventh defenceman Erik Gustafsson behind Morgan Rielly with the man advantage, but also worked in Timothy Liljegren as Mark Giordano’s partner in the 7-11 pack, dropping Justin Holl. It was working until Gustafsson and Giordano thought they’d cleared the zone, only to have Stamkos uncovered for a rebound.
Stamkos had hit the post on one power play and had just one other goal in the series.
Schenn’s value was underlined again on Saturday. He blocked Pat Maroon’s verbal darts over the centre ice during warm-up and after the Matthews’ goal, made two patient plays to get the puck out as Tampa brought immediate heat … It was seven years ago Sunday the Leafs won the draft lottery as a prelude to picking Matthews first overall … Among Ilya Samsonov’s biggest stops, Paul in the opening minutes. The Mississauga native has been hell on his hometown team in elimination games … Saturday’s first period was the first scoreless 20 minutes after puck drop in the series … Matthews’ 22nd career playoff goal tied Gordie Drillon for 11th in franchise history … Tampa’s Corey Perry was in career playoff game No. 196, tying Steve Yzerman for 22nd in NHL history … There was no big comeback for the Toronto Marlies on Saturday afternoon. This time, the Utica Comets built up their big lead and held it, a 7-2 thumping that ties the best-of-five series 1-1 heading back to Utica on Wednesday. Semyon Der-Arguchintsev and Kyle Clifford had power play goals for the Marlies.
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