When John Tavares’s seemingly harmless toss at the crease found its way into the back of the net in overtime on Saturday, the Maple Leafs and their long-suffering fans exorcised demons that had haunted them for two decades.
In their suite above Amalie Arena, Maple Leafs management leaped around and participated in a group hug. Players on the bench jumped over the boards to join joyous teammates on the ice. Thousands gathered for a tailgate party in downtown Toronto erupted in cheers and spilled into the streets.
The last time the Maple Leafs had won a round in the Stanley Cup playoffs was 2004. Matthew Knies, the team’s prized 20-year-old rookie, was a year and a half old.
“Seeing that puck find its way in was such an incredible moment,” said Sheldon Keefe, the first Maple Leafs coach to win a playoff series in 19 years. “It was pure jubilation. You black out in the moment. You don’t even know what’s going on.”
Toronto had lost in the opening round of the postseason for seven successive years, and in seven games to Tampa Bay and Montreal in the past two. It is headed to the Eastern Conference semi-finals after beating the Lightning in overtime three times in a row in one of the NHL’s most hostile environments.
A little luck was involved – Tavares’s shot bounced off an opponent’s skate 4:36 into extra time before it went in – but it was due.
When he went into the dressing room to address the team afterward, Keefe was overwhelmed.
“It was incredibly emotional,” he said. “Everyone in the organization is there and the guys were really excited so it was hard to find words in that moment.
“I acknowledged the fact that it has been a long road for our players and that they have been through a lot of crap to get to this spot. For them to get here, they really deserve it. They have been questioned a lot so it is about time a bounce went our way.”
After they eliminated Tampa Bay in six games, the Maple Leafs will now play the Florida Panthers in the next round. The Panthers pulled off a stunning upset on Sunday night, winning Game 7 in overtime against the Bruins in Boston. Toronto will have the home-ice advantage.
It was a strange series mostly dominated by the Lightning, a veteran team that won two of the past three Stanley Cups and lost in the final last summer. They are hard to beat at home once much less three times, but it happened. First on a goal from Morgan Rielly in Game 3, then on a tip-in by Alexander Kerfoot in Game 4 and Saturday on a shot that Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay’s magnificent goalie, laid neither his eyes or glove on.
“It is pretty exciting,” said Auston Matthews, the star centre. He scored Toronto’s other goal in the 2-1 victory, had five in the series and a point in all six games. “It is really hard to put into words. It took everybody to get this job done.
“It gets the monkey off the back for a lot of us who have been here for quite a long time now. It is something we can enjoy tonight but it is just step one.”
To win, a lot of good things have to happen. Mitch Marner had two goals and 11 points over the six games. Rielly, who scored four goals during the entire regular season, had three in the series and an assist on Tavares’s winner in Game 6. Ilya Samsonov outplayed Vasilevskiy and seconds after Toronto won on Saturday he skated out to centre ice and leaped into the arms of Erik Gustafsson.
Samsonov signed with Toronto in the off-season after the Washington Capitals declined to make him an offer. He ended up taking the starting job away from Matt Murray – remember him? – and became the first Maple Leafs goalie to win a playoff round since Ed Belfour.
You want to feel really old? Mats Sundin, Gary Roberts, Brian Leetch, Joe Nieuwendyk and Alexander Mogilny were on that team.
The Maple Leafs are the first team to snap a streak of eight or more consecutive series losses in the playoffs since the Islanders did so against the Panthers in the first round in 2016. Tavares, then the New York captain, scored the winner then in double-overtime.
So why did Toronto win now? Why not last year, or the year before that? It’s hard to say.
“I look at a year ago,” Keefe said late Saturday night. “We were in this very same building in Game 6 in overtime and we had opportunities to win and it didn’t go our way. I look at Game 6 against Montreal. We had opportunities to win and it didn’t go our way.
“We have been talking about it feeling different for our team this year, but feeling different doesn’t help us. It has to actually be different. And I am glad to sit here and say it is.”