I have wanted to write this article so many times, for so many years, and now that it’s finally here, I don’t know how to do it. I have cried, yelled, cheered, and laughed so much in the past twelve hours I don’t even know if I have anything left. But let’s give it a go.
19 years is a long time. Two decades of the Toronto Maple Leafs quite literally not winning anything. I was three the last time the Leafs won a series, so I don’t recall that happening. Every memory since then has been negative. Even the positive ones have just led to more negative ones. The Leafs coming back from 3-1 down to get to game seven against Boston in 2013? Amazing! Blowing a 4-1 lead and losing in overtime? The worst moment of my childhood and a scar for life. Making the playoffs for six straight years? Feels great. Losing in the first round every single time? Enough humiliation to last me a lifetime.
My most remarkable memory of the Leafs was when Mats Sundin scored a hattrick and the overtime winner against the Calgary Flames to reach 500 goals for his career. I was five. That was a regular season game in October of 2006. But now, everything is different. Last night, the Toronto Maple Leafs won a playoff series. And I am going to get this out of the way now. If anyone makes fun of you for cheering too much about the Leafs’ win, tell them to fuck off. The haters and losers (of which there are many) have thrived in our misery for YEARS. But, unfortunately, they do not get to decide how we celebrate OUR favourite team accomplishing something that most of us have never seen them accomplish.
We have been made fun of for 19 years for being good fans. For being loyal to the team we cheer for. But is that not the whole point of watching sports and having a favourite team? To follow them through the ups and downs, celebrate the high points and stick with them during the low ones? We deserve this. It means more to us. That is just an objective fact. Toronto has given its hockey team the type of unconditional love that one dreams about. Years of suffering led to this point, and now we have the last laugh. As Donovan Bennett put it so aptly in this video, the joke is on you if you thought that this Leafs team was the same as all those that have come before it.
Let’s talk about the actual game. Sheldon Keefe finally changed the Leafs’ lineup. Michael Bunting, Timothy Liljegren, and Erik Gustafson in, Sam Lafferty, Zach Aston-Reese and Justin Holl out. That meant the Leafs were going with 11 forwards and 7 defensemen. But the team’s three worst players were out of the lineup, and it didn’t matter who replaced them.
However, game six followed a similar script to the previous games. Tampa came out of the gates hot, and Ilya Samsonov had to be ready. Samsonov was incredible all game, but his best work came in the first period. Here are a few key saves he made to prevent the Lightning from getting the first goal.
The Leafs’ powerplay failed to generate much on two occasions in the first. And that led to this stat being floated everywhere.
The same old Leafs. They’re going to do it again, aren’t they… SONK!
The second period was a lot better from Toronto. They got many chances off the rush and had much more offensive zone time than the first period. But it looked like the game would stay scoreless headed to the third period until Auston Matthews had other ideas. Keefe was mixing up the lines a lot, which led to him getting Matthews out for a shift with Tavares and Marner. Honestly, though, Tavares and Marner didn’t need to do much on Matthews’s goal other than just watch Big Tone cook. Matthews started the play by stripping the puck from Steven Stamkos in the Leafs’ zone and skating through the neutral zone into Tampa’s end. He got a great chance after a give-and-go with Marner, which was stopped. He got the puck back and again got a clear shot on Andrei Vasilevsky after another pass from Marner through the seam, which got stopped too. Matthews chased the rebound down, set up for a one-timer, and Tampa blocked it.
The ensuing clearance attempt was excellently kept in by T.J. Brodie, who only had eyes for one man, Auston Matthews, and finally, on his FOURTH shot of the shift, Papi opened the scoring. Before this series, there was chatter about Matthews’s inability to take over games in the playoffs previously in his career. I don’t know how fair that critique is, considering Matthews has had some great performances in the playoffs before (Washington, 2017 and Boston, 2019 come to mind), but the fact is he is the best player on the team that had failed year after year in the big games. Now, we can put that chatter to bed. Matthews finished with five goals and four in his last three games. In every sense of the word, Tone took over game four and brought his team back from the dead, and he was fantastic again in game six. My confidence in the 2022 MVP is as high as ever, and I am eternally grateful we get to watch him play for our team. I cannot wait for him to be a Leaf for life.
It was clear the Leafs were playing nervous in the third period, and understandably so. The first five minutes were relatively poor, and Tampa tied the game. I am unsure why Keefe had two lefties in Gustafson and Giordano out together, but it wasn’t a great idea. After the goal, things settled down a bit after that, but Samsonov still had to make a couple of great saves, including a big one on Nick Paul. Could you imagine if Nick Paul scored, Sens fans would have acted like they won the Stanley Cup. Too bad. I hope they move up a few spots in the draft lottery. They haven’t had much to celebrate recently. Anyways, back to the playoffs, the Leafs relied a lot on Jake McCabe and T.J. Brodie down the stretch, and they were up to the challenge. Giordano also made some big blocks late and looked much better despite the goal against him. The Justin Holl effect.
The refs missed this high sticking call late, but they also called a fake high stick on the Leafs in game six last year, which cost Toronto the game, so I considered us even. As the clock wound down and overtime seemed inevitable, the thought of winning three overtime games in Tampa’s arena seemed unrealistic. But, if anyone could do it, it is these Leafs.
Toronto almost lost on one of the most classic Leaf-ian plays ever. Timothy Liljegren’s shot was blocked away by Vasilevsky, and somehow the puck ended up on the stick of Mikey Eyssimont, who had a chance to end the game. But Samsonov stopped him.
The moment it happened will never be forgotten. John Tavares scored a few minutes into overtime on a hilarious goal.
It was a remarkable shift from Tavares, Marner and Knies. That is the third overtime goal Matthew Knies has been on for this series. Incredible stat and a great play by him continuing the cycle to Tavares. Of course, the guy who literally slept in a Toronto Maple Leafs-themed bed when he was a kid sends his team to the second round. The elation I felt was better than I ever could have dreamt of, and I cannot wait to feel that three more times.
The word ‘deserved’ gets thrown around a lot in sports. It has defined the Leafs over the last 19 years. Toronto probably deserved to win a series by now. The fact that it took them this many tries to win is nearly mathematically impossible
But the Leafs hadn’t won a series, no matter how hard they tried or how much better than the opponent they played. Deserved doesn’t matter. This series with Tampa was not Toronto’s best in terms of actual on-ice performance over the past seven years. There were parts of games where they got severely outplayed, but they put themselves into positions where they just needed a chance to win, and they did what teams in the past have failed to do. When people ask why this Leafs team differs from the ones before them, it is hard to point to one specific reason. Clearly, this team has something the others lack. Killer instinct, clutch gene, whatever you want to call it, they have it. Now the monkey is off their back, and they have nothing but an open road in front of them. Ultimately, the Leafs finished with 49% of the expected goals share, and Tampa had 51%. It was an even series between two great teams. Maybe all it came down to was Ilya Samsonov being better than Andrei Vasilevsky, or a couple of lucky bounces. Hockey is sometimes a silly game, and Leaf fans know that more than anyone. But that doesn’t make this feel any less good. The reasons why don’t matter. This team was thought to have been cursed. I didn’t actually know if it was possible for them to win. If people want to argue that Toronto didn’t deserve to win this series, they can argue with a wall because not a single Leaf fan fucking cares.
A couple of shoutouts, then we will get to questions. Kyle Dubas is an incredible general manager; I am so happy to have him. The Samsonov signing was a little lucky, but it was a risk-free gamble, and he has been brilliant. I will never forget his performance last night. Every time Leafs goalies let the team down in big games, not last night.
Back to Dubas, his trades at the deadline addressed precisely what this team needed. Luke Schenn has been way better than I imagined, and his pairing with Morgan Rielly has been the team’s best. O’Reilly, Acciari and McCabe are playoff performers to the absolute max, and they are essential to Toronto’s success. Besides winning the 2016 draft lottery, Dubas becoming GM is the best thing to happen for the Leafs in the last twenty years. He will get an extension and win a Stanley Cup with us. Shoutout to Matty Knies because he has done everything asked of him and more. He will never sit for a Leaf playoff game again, and I cannot wait to see him score his first goal. Shoutout to Jon Cooper; thanks for everything, buddy. I couldn’t be happier to send your ass home. Shoutout to Pat Maroon. Please retire.
Lastly, shout out to Leaf fans everywhere, especially those who took over downtown Toronto last night.
What a scene. Three. More. Times.
Would you rather play Boston or Florida?
This is a complex question. The Leafs are much better than Florida and would be the favourite in a series. But a pesky 8 seed who just knocked off the greatest regular season team in NHL history would be full of confidence. It might not be as simple as I’d hope. At the same time, playing Boston would be unbelievable and so much fun. Beating them would be the cherry on top. It would be an electric factory of a series, and I think the Leafs would not be scared one bit to play them. However, they are still the Bruins, and they did win 65 games this season.
I want to play Boston, but I would rather play Florida. If that makes any sense.
Have a watch. See you for game one, round two. What a time to be alive.