Any true Leaf fan would not have blamed you for turning the TV off eight minutes into game five, but boy, would you have regretted doing it. A truly pulsating night in Toronto that any person who lives in the city, let alone is a fan of the Leafs, will never forget. And it wasn’t even an elimination game! The Leafs could not win the series last night, but in all honesty, a loss would have been difficult to recover from which makes last night’s comeback even more stunning. It is hard not to think back to Toronto’s game five win in 2019 against the Boston Bruins and compare the situations. The winner of game five when a series is tied 2-2 has gone on to win the series 80% percent of the time, but in 2019, the Leafs didn’t. They blew game six at home and played their worst game of the series in game seven. However, as much as this year and 2019 are similar, they are entirely different at the same time. That 2019 team was fragile, chaotic and coached by Mike Babcock. That 2019 team would not have come back from a 2-0 deficit after eight minutes like this team did. Yet again, this 2022 iteration of the Leafs showed that there is reason to believe the curse is in the process of being lifted.
The game actually started pretty well for Toronto. The Buds got the game’s first chance and then got a power-play opportunity after a too many men call. After that, it was a mess. The power-play didn’t get a shot, and the Lightning subsequently scored not too long after, thanks to a Steven Stamkos wrist shot. Then, a Tampa power-play led to Victor Hedman doubling the lead for the Lightning, which caused Scotiabank Arena and Maple Leaf Square to go very, very quiet. A William Nylander penalty and this Mark Giordano cross-checking call (??) gave Tampa a five on three power-play and could have quickly put this game to bed.
But it didn’t, in fact, similarly to the five-minute penalty kill in game one. It sparked the Leafs. After two more Leaf power-plays with limited success, things were looking bleak. However, Toronto got some decent chances towards the end of the first, including two grade A looks from Nylander, which were stopped by Vasilevskiy. A sign of what was to come. Just to note, there were seven penalties called in the first twenty minutes of action, seven.
The second period was a whirlwind of events that somehow only saw one goal. Another too many men penalty by the Lightning allowed the Leafs to cut the lead in half after Nylander banked it off Tavares’s skate for his first of the series. Following that, the Leafs really started to push. Wave after wave of blue sweaters getting on the puck and causing Tampa turnovers riled the fans up and raised feelings of anticipation. I want to shout out the fourth line of Blackwell, Spezza and Kase because they had some great shifts in the second, which kept Leaf momentum going. Their speed and skill were too much for the Bolts’ fourth line to handle, and they easily could have scored on several occasions. A quite hilariously delayed tripping call on Steven Stamkos put the Leafs on another power-play, and they came so close to tying the game.
This Matthews chance really started to turn Scotiabank into a nervous frenzy as the feeling that maybe the second goal just wouldn’t come was becoming real. However, this humongous save by Jack Campbell following a Morgan Rielly turnover kept the lead at one heading into the third and got Leaf fans thinking, maybe?
The third period started with penalties for both teams and four on four hockey which meant an opportunity for the Leafs. Space and time are a rarity in the playoffs, and now the Leafs would get almost two full minutes of it; they had to take advantage. A great rush by Nylander got the puck into the Lightning zone, and then John Tavares went to work for the first time in this series. His puck protection and close control opened up a chasm of room for Rielly, and there was absolutely no mistake from the Leafs’ longest-tenured player, 2-2.
Still on the same four on four, Nylander came back out as the penalties were ending and got on the end of an intelligent Ilya Mikheyev pass and ripped it off the post and in to give Toronto the lead. One of the best ‘ping’ sounds ever, just to add a little extra. There is no doubting that Nylander can be a frustrating player. Even as one of his biggest fans, I often find myself wanting more effort from him. However, game five showed yet again that he will always be worth whatever headaches he causes. He was the Leafs’ best skater and consistently dominated possession, leading to him finishing with three points. He’s shown that you can trust him to be there in big games. Also, I love Ilya Mikheyev so much. Just an absolute warrior who plays his heart out, and you cannot have enough of those guys in the playoffs. It’s been a long road for him, and don’t forget he wanted a trade last season, but he is integral to this team now.
All of this happened in the first five minutes of the period, which meant we were far from being done with the drama. An absolute bomb from Ryan Mcdonugah silenced the crowd and tied the game with around ten minutes to go. The Leafs had to dig deep now. One Leaf, in particular, dug deepest, Soup. Legitimately one of the best saves I’ve seen a Leaf goalie make that I think has gone under the radar.
The Leafs were reeling a bit after Tampa’s third goal, but these saves from Campbell settled them back in and kept things under control. To stop Nikita Kucherov point-blank like that, it was heroic from Soupy. Toronto’s two biggest stars put the Leafs ahead 4-3 with just over six minutes to go after a brilliant two on one.
Michael Bunting was great tonight, and his pass started it off but Marner’s ability to make that play at that moment was superb. No panic, just a simple shot pass off the Conn Smythe winner’s pad right to his teammate, who buries it. After the longest six minutes of all time, the Leafs got out of game five with a 3-2 series lead.
I said the Leafs’ best players needed to make a statement in game five, and that is just what they did. Marner, Matthews and Nylander all had an expected goals share of over 70% at five on five, and Tavares was instrumental in getting the game tied. Finally, they were all able to get into some sort of flow and get things cooking at even strength. They were moving their feet and using their skill to open things up, and it was amazing to watch. Stars have to be stars in the playoffs, and game five proved that. Morgan Rielly was not very good for much of the game, but his resiliency is unmatched, and that goal was so big for him. He just needs to be smarter with the puck in the neutral zone and not overthink things. Mark Giordano was, again, brilliant. An xGF% of 83% and doing exactly what he was brought in to do. Kept things simple, got some good looks from the point and pinched at the correct times. I cannot say enough good things about him and Justin Holl last night, for that matter.
Not that the NHL referees read my articles, but the NHL needs to sit down the entire association of refs and make them watch the second and third periods of last night’s game. Do you see what happens when you aren’t unnecessarily inserting yourself into the game?! We got a great hockey game between two great teams. Admittedly the refereeing was still bad in periods two and three, but at least it was fun to watch! We do not want to see teams practice their power-plays in the middle of a Stanley Cup playoff game. Please, figure it out.
It is hard to beat nights like last night as a sports fan. The sheer gratification of seeing your team overcome so many things to get the job done is why we watch sports. After an atrocious game four and a terrible start to game five, the Leafs were done in most people’s minds. I stressed keeping a level head because I believed in this team. I couldn’t stress staying calm in previous years because there was no reason to think that the Leafs would pull through, and all you could really do was panic. But now, a win away from the first series win in almost two decades, we can genuinely start to believe. Surely, they cannot blow this now. So stay calm and Go, Buds.
Shoutout to @TicTacOmar for the clips and Moneypuck.com for all the stats.