They did it.
No, really. Honest.
Nineteen years of misery in the Stanley Cup Playoffs ended for the Maple Leafs on Saturday when they dispatched the Lightning 2-1 in overtime in Game 6 of their first-round series at Amalie Arena.
John Tavares scored with 15:24 remaining in the first extra time period as Toronto won its first post-season series since April 20, 2004 when it defeated Ottawa. That was longest active drought of any team in the National Hockey League.
Its opponent in the second round will be the winner of Sunday night’s contest between Boston and Florida at TD Garden. If the Bruins win, they will have the home-ice advantage. If the Panthers win, the Maple Leafs will get it.
The Maple Leafs were in 0-11 in potential series-clinching games since 2013 but finally got it done this time around. That wasn’t an ordinary monkey the franchise flipped off its back. It was King Kong.
“It is a great feeling when the puck goes in,” Morgan Rielly, the Toronto defenceman, said. He is the longest-standing member of the club and has experienced first-round losses in each of the last seven years. “There is a mix of relief and happiness and gratitude but now we want more.
“We want to keep pushing ahead.”
Ilya Samsonov had 31 saves in the victory, including a stop on a one-timer by Lightning centre Steven Stamkos during a power play late in the second period and a backhand by Ross Colton late in the third.
Auston Matthews scored his fifth goal of the series on a slap shot from 39 feet out to put Toronto ahead 1-0 with 6:13 left in the second period. Matthews scored four times in the last three games and now has nine goals in 13 post-season games over the last two years against Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay’s exceptional keeper.
Vasileyskiy had 20 saves in the defeat.
Stamkos tied it 1-1 on a sharp wrist with 15:49 left in the third period. The goal came off a rebound of shot by defenceman Darren Raddysh.
Tampa Bay had reached the Stanley Cup finals in three successive years and had won twice. It hoped to become the fifth team in NHL history and the first since the New York Islanders (1980-84) to reach the finals in at least four consecutive seasons. The Canadiens are the only other franchise to do so, achieving the feat on three occasions.
To finally put the series to bed, the Maple Leafs won three straight road contests, all in overtime. Game 6 was played during a tornado watch that cancelled the Lightning’s watch party outside the arena in Thunder Alley. A jubilant throng gathered in Maple Leaf Square cheered the victory.
Michael Bunting returned to the lineup for the first time since Game 1, when he was ejected for an illegal check to the head of Erik Cernak. Bunting was suspended for three games and held out of the lineup again Game 5.
“What happened was very unfortunate,” Bunting said this week of Cernak, who did not return due to the head injury incurred on the play. Bunting texted Cernak after Game 1 to wish him a fast recovery. “You never want to see someone get hurt.”
Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe shook up his lineup after Thursday’s 4-2 loss in Game 5. He not only added Bunting to the lineup but defencemen Liljegren and Erik Gustafsson and scratched Justin Holl.
It was the first action in the playoffs for both. To make room for them, forwards Sam Lafferty and Zach Aston-Reece also sat out.
Toronto had two power plays but failed to score in a fast-paced first period. Both net minders made brilliant saves.
After missing a chance to clinch the series on home ice in Game 5, the Maple Leafs wanted to put more pressure on the Lightning. Tampa Bay won 4-2 at Scotiabank Arena on Thursday.
“We don’t want to be on our heels,” Alexander Kerfoot, the Toronto forward, said early in the day. “We want to take it to them right from the get-go. We don’t want to sit back and let the game come to us.
“We are as upbeat as I’ve seen after a big loss. We know we are a good team. One game is not going to change anything.”
Vasilevskiy was shaky through much of the series but stopped 48 of the last 52 shots he faced. He came into the game 5-1 in outings where the Lightning stood to be eliminated since 2020.
Between the teams, they took 54 shots, had 83 hits, 48 blocked shots and 40 take-aways on Saturday.
It was a historical triumph for a franchise that has been thirsting for victory for so long. And it came off a loss on home ice two days earlier.
“You have to turn the page,” Luke Schenn, the Maple Leafs veteran defenceman, said earlier in the day. “It is the playoffs. It’s an emotional roller coaster but you think about and try to correct some things and learn from your mistakes.
“I think we have more to give for sure. There have been times where we have played good but I don’t think we have done it for an entire game.”
It was the best game of the series by both teams by far.
In the end, a small group of Toronto fans remained in the arena chanting “Go Leafs Go!”
That’s a refrain that will be heard again in the second round for the first time in 19 years.