Leafs eliminate Lightning in Game 6, advance to 2nd round for first time since 2004

The Leafs won a 2-1 overtime thriller against the Lightning to win their first playoff series in 19 years.

This is precisely the moment John Tavares envisioned when he signed with his boyhood Toronto Maple Leafs on Canada Day during the summer of 2018. After a 19-year drought, the Maple Leafs are off to the second round of the playoffs; the curse that has plagued the seven-year iteration of the franchise defined by Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Tavares is now over.

Tavares scored the overtime winner to eliminate the three-time conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto’s usually stoic captain erupted after his shot hit Darren Raddysh’s skates and trickled over the line for the 2-1 franchise-altering goal.

The prospect of seven consecutive first-round losses would be unbearable, it would have consequences that would ripple through the Maple Leafs’ organization and Tavares, who had bore witness to four consecutive exits in the early days of spring, sent his hands into the sky as if to thank a higher power for finally breaking through the wall.

In some ways, this was Tavares’ destiny. The last time the Maple Leafs advanced, Tavares was a prodigy for the Greater Toronto Hockey League’s Toronto Marlboros, a youth club that bears the same insignia as the AHL’s Toronto Marlies, with dozens of players graduating from their ranks into the NHL. For the better part of two decades — perhaps an indication of the depths that this hockey-mad country can reach — Tavares has been pitted against his Lightning counterpart Steven Stamkos, both 1990-born former youth wunderkinds from the Greater Toronto Area who were taken first overall in their OHL and NHL draft years before making an instant impact in the NHL.

Stamkos scored the game-tying goal Saturday, his biggest moment in a series where he was largely absent for his club, but his resume already includes two Stanley Cups and two Rocket Richard Trophies. At this moment, it’s now Tavares’ time to ascend beyond the pursuits of individual glory.

It wasn’t going to be easy for the Maple Leafs, it never is. Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe finally made the adjustments the entire city was begging for, replacing Justin Holl with Timothy Liljegren. Erik Gustafsson also joined Liljegren among Toronto’s seven-defensemen format, while Michael Bunting, whose three-game suspension at times felt like another bad omen, returned to the lineup and was one of Toronto’s best forwards.

It paid off in subtle ways, if not on the scoresheet. Liljegren made the most of his ice time, facilitating clean exits while Bunting played like a wrecking ball — albeit with discipline — and almost willed his way into a goal during a game where both teams attempted, and often failed, to clog up the neutral zone.

There are larger goals ahead but this is a cathartic moment for the core that includes Matthews, Marner, Tavares, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly. To the factions of the wide-spanning fan base that had grown cynical after six consecutive heartbreaks, the core wore the losses as a badge of demerit.

Trying to figure out this iteration of the Maple Leafs was akin to staring into the sun: how could a team that routinely sported some of the best players in the NHL, a perennial 100-point plus threat in the vaunted Atlantic Division, continue to fail time after time? This year was bound to be different and the core four plus Rielly responded with their best performances as Maple Leafs.

Marner, at the time of this filing, ranks second in points in these playoffs, Matthews teed up a brilliant all-around performance that included four blocked shots and 11 individual scoring chances with Game 6's opening goal, Rielly notched three goals and seven points in the series, including the Game 3 overtime winner, while Nylander, to the chagrin of uncles across southern Ontario, posted seven points in six games as well.

Captain John Tavares (91) delivered the Leafs their first playoff series win since 2004. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Captain John Tavares (91) delivered the Leafs their first playoff series win since 2004. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

You can’t say it’s the same old Maple Leafs if the players who have defined this era finally broke through against an opponent that is rightfully the class of the conference.

There’s a narrative fallacy in trying to consider the 2022-23 Maple Leafs as the same old team from yesteryear. Matthew Knies, the 20-year-old rookie revelation, was two years away from making his junior hockey debut when the Maple Leafs started on this quest. Trade deadline acquisitions Ryan O’Reilly, Noel Acciari, Jake McCabe, Sam Lafferty, Luke Schenn and Gustafsson had nothing to do with the failures of the past. Calle Jarnkrok signed up to be a bottom-pair winger this year and played the best hockey of his career with the Maple Leafs. Ilya Samsonov signed a one-year, show-me deal and provided the Maple Leafs with the requisite level of goaltending to get the franchise over the proverbial hump.

If nearly half the team wasn’t around for the past agonies, can you really call them the same old Maple Leafs?

Samsonov was outstanding in Game 6 and though neither starting goaltender was at their best for large parts of the series, the 26-year-old outdueled all-world keeper Andrei Vasilevskiy, who quietly submitted the worst playoff performance of his career. The logic entering the series dictated that the Maple Leafs had better forwards, better defensemen and better depth, but Tampa Bay’s institutional knowledge and superior goaltending would turn this into a classic matchup. Instead, Samsonov was marginally better than Vasilevskiy, and sometimes winning in the margins is the difference.

And now that the Maple Leafs have won a round, why not four? They will play the winner of the Boston Bruins-Florida Panthers series and if the latter emerges, Toronto will be considered the favourite. If the 65-win Bruins win Game 7, that’s the next major challenge standing in the way.

The crushing weight of trying to appease a frothing fan base hungry for a taste of playoff success is a larger barrier than the challenge the Bruins would pose. Toronto has won one round. Why not four? It’s time to start dreaming.