Tavares scores in OT, Leafs down Lightning to make 2nd round for 1st time since 2004
TAMPA, Fla. — John Tavares had dreams of suiting up for the Maple Leafs.
When the chance to come home arrived, he couldn't pass up the opportunity to join the team he cheered for as a kid just down the road.
Despite a number of painful moments and plenty of tough questions, a night like Saturday made it all worth it.
Toronto finally exorcised its playoff demons — and is off to the second round of the NHL playoffs.
Tavares scored at 4:36 of overtime and Ilya Samsonov made 31 saves as the Leafs downed the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 to win their series 4-2 and advance in the post-season for the first time in nearly two decades.
"Special being a Maple Leaf," said the 32-year-old from Oakville, Ont. "Growing up in the (Greater Toronto Area), you get a sense of the history and tradition and what it means to the city, to the people and how big and how incredible Leafs Nation is.
"To get a big one tonight is really nice, especially with some of the disappointments."
The Leafs captain, who signed with Toronto in 2018 after bolting the New York Islanders in free agency, threw a puck in front that went off Lightning defenceman Darren Raddysh's skate and in for his fourth goal of the series to send Toronto players spilling off the bench in ecstasy.
The emotions ran the gamut for an organization that hasn't tasted playoff success in a generation under an intense microscope.
Relief was right up there alongside the jubilation.
"Great feeling when the puck goes in," said Leafs blueliner Morgan Rielly, who scored in OT in Game 3, tied Game 4 late and was in front of Tampa's net on the series clincher. "For it to be Johnny, I think is just extremely special.
"It's a mix of being relieved, being extremely happy, being grateful."
Auston Matthews had the goal in regulation for the Leafs, who lost to Tampa in seven games last spring.
"I've been here seven years," Matthews said. "It's huge mentally for us just to get that monkey off the back."
Steven Stamkos replied for the Lightning, who saw their streak of three straight trips to the Stanley Cup final come to an end. Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 20 shots.
"We played well enough to win this series," Tampa head coach Jon Cooper said. "Anybody that watched the series would agree with that."
"At some point they were going to get a break," he added of the Leafs. "It sucks it was against us."
Toronto last made the NHL's final eight in 2004 — before the league introducing a salary cap, before Twitter was launched, and just over four months after Paul Martin became Canada's 21st prime minister — when they beat the Ottawa Senators in seven games.
Joe Nieuwendyk was the hero that night with two goals on a shaky Patrick Lalime. Toronto would go on to lose a second-round matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers when Jeremy Roenick scored the clinching goal in overtime of Game 6.
The wait for another series triumph in hockey's biggest market would last 6,948 days.
The Leafs have seen 268 skaters, 33 goalies, seven coaches and six general managers pass through the doors since.
"Long time coming," Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said. "Long time coming for a lot of players in our room, long time coming for myself, even longer coming for Leafs Nation.
"It's a big night."
Toronto entered Saturday with 10 straight losses in games where they had a chance to eliminate an opponent dating back to the start of the Matthews-Mitch Marner era, including a 4-2 loss in Game 5 this spring on home ice, in the process of stumbling at the post-season's first hurdle six years running.
"We just kept believing in our group here, didn't listen to anything outside and knew we had the potential to do something special," said Marner, who sported a bloodied lip.
Including a first-round defeat in 2013, Toronto's record in games where it could clinch a series sat at 0-11 before puck drop — the second-longest streak in NHL history.
"You want to keep pushing for more," said Rieilly, a black eye showing the price he paid. "That's great thing about our group — we're looking forward to the challenges that are ahead. We're proud of the effort.
"But ultimately we want to keep playing and we want to keep pushing."
Coming off Cup triumphs in 2020 and 2021 before falling in last year's final to the Colorado Avalanche in Game 6 at home, the Lightning tied things 1-1 at 4:11 of the third when Stamkos scored his second on a rebound.
Matthews bagged his series-leading fifth at 13:47 of the middle period for a 1-0 lead when he blasted a one-timer over Vasilevskiy's shoulder.
Samsonov made a big stop on Stamkos early in a spirited first where the Leafs were under siege at times.
"Don't think I can say enough great things about Sammy," Matthews said. "I admire his mindset, his attitude.
"Every single day just comes to the rink and he works his ass off."
Tampa beat Toronto 7-3 in Game 1, but lost Erik Cernak to an illegal check to the head from Michael Bunting on a sequence that kept the minute-crunching defenceman sidelined the rest of the series.
Toronto picked up a 7-2 victory two nights later before securing consecutive overtime wins in Tampa, including a 5-4 decision Monday after trailing 4-1 midway through the third period to build a 3-1 series lead.
The Lightning responded with that 4-2 victory Thursday at Scotiabank Arena to stave off elimination before the Leafs finally sealed the deal Saturday.
"It's been a long road for a lot of our guys," Keefe said. "They've been through a lot of (crap) to get here, to get to this spot. For them to get this feeling tonight, they deserve it.
"Those guys have worked incredibly hard and been through a lot, and have been questioned a lot. It's about time a bounce went our way."
Toronto's loss to Tampa in last year's playoffs resigned the organization to that sixth consecutive opening-round exit, and more tough questions about roster makeup, management philosophy and coaching.
The Original Six franchise elected to stay the course with its high-priced core, Keefe and GM Kyle Dubas.
The decision paid off.
The Leafs made the playoffs just once in 11 years following the 2004-05 lockout, with their only appearance ending in a stunning Game 7 collapse against Boston.
Toronto, which already had Marner, Rielly and William Nylander in its system, then bottomed out in 2015-16 for the right to draft Matthews first overall.
The Leafs returned to the playoffs the next spring, falling to Washington in a solid showing from their young roster.
Toronto followed that up with two more seven-game defeats to Boston in 2018 and 2019.
The Leafs were then tripped up inside the NHL's COVID-19 bubble in 2020 by Columbus. Toronto dominated the league's pandemic-necessitated North Division in 2021 before blowing a 3-1 series lead and losing in seven to Montreal for another stunning low point.
The Leafs started to turn a corner by going toe-to-toe with the battle-tested Lighting last year, but lost in a matchup that went the distance despite leading the series 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2, including an OT defeat in Game 6 where they also led Tampa in the third period.
A year later, all that heartbreak is now well and truly in the past.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 29, 2023.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press