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Toronto Maple Leafs center Alexander Kerfoot celebrates after he scored the game-winning goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning in overtime of game four of the first round of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena.Kim Klement/Reuters

Fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs need no reminders of the team’s recent failures in the playoffs.

That is, the opening round of the playoffs. The Leafs haven’t escaped the first series since 2004 and are currently in the midst of a stretch of seven straight playoff berths — and six straight series losses.

Toronto’s miraculous 5-4 overtime win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday, including a wild, three-goal comeback in the third period, helped keep those demons at bay for the time being. The win gave the Maple Leafs a 3-1 lead in the series.

Now, Toronto is on the brink of advancing to the second round and will try to do so Thursday at Scotiabank Arena. But as recent history suggests, a series win is far from guaranteed.

First-round failures

The Leafs have a long and dark history of painful first-round exits. One of the most infamous is Toronto’s collapse against the Boston Bruins in 2013.

The series was the Maple Leafs’ only trip to the playoffs in the 11-season span between 2005-06 and 2015-16. After losing three of the first four games, Toronto salvaged the series and forced a Game 7, where it blew a 4-1 lead in the final 11 minutes of regulation and lost in overtime.

The Montreal Canadiens also hold a special place in recent Toronto lore. When the Maple Leafs played the Canadiens in 2021, they took a 3-1 series lead and largely dominated the Canadiens in the first four games, outscoring them 12-4.

But Montreal stormed back and in Game 7, goalie Carey Price saved all but one of Toronto’s 31 shots to complete the Canadiens’ improbable comeback.

Toronto has also suffered embarrassment at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets (2020) and Washington Capitals (2017). Most recently, Tampa Bay ruined Toronto’s hopes.

History with Tampa Bay

The Leafs lost in seven games to the Lightning in 2022, extending Toronto’s streak of 10 straight losses in series-clinching games.

The teams also played each other three times in the regular season this year, with the Leafs winning twice and taking one overtime loss.

There’s a lot at stake for the Lightning on Thursday. They’ve reached the Stanley Cup final three seasons in a row, winning twice, and are looking to become the first team since the New York Islanders in 1984 to make four consecutive finals. A loss would bring an end to that streak.

Dreams of ‘04

The last time the Maple Leafs won a playoff series, Shrek 2 still hadn’t hit theatres.

It was April of 2004 when Toronto beat the Ottawa Senators, an offensive powerhouse that led the league in goals per game and power-play goals. The Senators were in their eighth consecutive trip to the playoffs.

It didn’t matter for the Leafs, who went up 3-2 ahead of Game 6. The Senators forced Game 7 when Mike Fisher scored the game-winning goal in double overtime, but Toronto ultimately clinched the series victory with a 4-1 win.

Two weeks later, the Maple Leafs headed home after losing in six games to the Philadelphia Flyers. The loss began a seven-year playoff drought and 17 seasons of first-round woes.

Thursday’s game

With the ever-present pressure of history following the Maple Leafs, they’ll look to clinch a trip to the second round at 7 p.m. Thursday.

Forward Michael Bunting is eligible to return after serving a three-game suspension, but Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe has yet to commit to a lineup for Game 5.

Whether Bunting plays or not, the Maple Leafs are close to breaking a nearly two-decade curse. They’ve been close before. Only time will tell if this year is different.

With files from The Canadian Press

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