Unlikely Toronto Maple Leafs Playoff Heroes

toronto maple leafs playoff

Post-season heroes come in all forms from the star player to the unknown fourth-liner. We all know the exploits of the great playoff performers. However, we hardly hear about the unlikely playoff heroes. These unlikely post-season stars can contribute in many ways. Contributions could be for an entire playoff run, a series, a game, or even a goal. These unlikely heroes have made big plays that no one expects. This series looks at all of these unknown stars. These are the unlikely Toronto Maple Leafs playoff heroes.

Toronto Maple Leafs Playoff Heroes

Bill Barilko

Before the Moment

While they didn’t finish first in the league, the 1950-51 Maple Leafs were definitely a successful regular-season team. Captained by Ted Kennedy and coached by Joe Primeau, Toronto marched to a 41-16-13 record that year, second to only Gordie Howe‘s Detroit Red Wings.

Part of that team was Bill Barilko, a 23-year-old defenceman who was a veteran of four NHL seasons. While not relied upon for offence, Barilko had already grown into one of the Leafs’ best defensive specialists, joining a solid D-core that included Hall-of-Famer Fern Flaman. After Barilko’s 12-point, 58-game season, the Leafs defeated their archrivals in the Boston Bruins in the Semifinals to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. They’d have to face another powerhouse in the Montreal Canadiens, who were fresh off of eliminating Howe’s Red Wings in six games.

The Moment

Toronto had jumped out to a 3-1 series lead against the Habs, but it was an extremely close series. Every game had gone to overtime, with both teams yet to score more than three goals in a game. Game 5 was no different. Montreal played a great road game, jumping out to a 2-1 lead, but Toronto would not be denied, tying the game late in the third period.

Into overtime, the Maple Leafs forced a flurry in front of Montreal goalie Gerry McNeil. The Maple Leafs got multiple shots off, but it was a pinching Barilko who came down the slot, scoring the Cup-clinching goal in overtime.

After the Moment

Unfortunately, the ‘after the moment’ section here has a bit more folklore than the actual goal. That’s because that goal would be the last goal Barilko would ever score. Later that summer, Barilko would join his dentist to fly to Northern Quebec for a fishing trip. On its return trip, however, the single-engine plane would disappear from the sky, not to be found for another 11 years.

Barilko’s legacy was carried on by the Leafs, with his #5 jersey being retired. Later, Canadian band The Tragically Hip would record a song entitled “Fifty Mission Cap,” a 1993 composition concerning Barilko’s death and its impact on the team.

Alyn McCauley

Before the Moment

The 2001-02 edition of the Maple Leafs was part of a solid era for Toronto hockey. They had made the playoffs in three straight seasons under coach Pat Quinn, and this year was no different. A 43-25-10-4 record was good enough for 100 points and a playoff berth.

On the centre depth chart, a couple of spots behind the captain and Hall-of-Famer Mats Sundin was Alyn McCauley. The 24-year-old was largely a defensive specialist at that point in his career, only scoring 16 points despite playing in all 82 Toronto games. However, Toronto had still not made a Stanley Cup Final appearance under Quinn, but they got close this year.

The Moment

Toronto’s playoff success was largely due to McCauley’s performance. While this moment doesn’t focus on a specific goal, McCauley’s total playoff performance was nothing short of incredible. Despite Sundin being injured for the majority of the playoffs, Toronto marched all the way to the Eastern Conference Final before being eliminated at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes.

To get to that Conference Final, though, they won two tight seven-game series against both the New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators. And all of that was possible because of McCauley’s individual effort. He finished second on the team in playoff scoring behind only Gary Roberts, scoring 15 points in 20 games. In less than a quarter of the number of games, McCauley scored only one less point than he did all regular season. It remains one of the unlikeliest individual playoff performances in Leafs’ history.

After the Moment

While the Leafs haven’ had much-extended success since that playoff run, McCauley’s stock (to the surprise of no-one) rose. He was traded midway through the following season to the San Jose Sharks in a package with Brad Boyes and a first-round pick for star winger Owen Nolan. McCauley’s offensive numbers again improved in an expanded role with San Jose, scoring 83 points in 174 games in a Sharks uniform. For comparison, McCauley scored fewer points as a Maple Leaf despite playing over 300 games with the team.

Kasperi Kapanen

Before the Moment

2016-17 was a season of immense growth for the Toronto Maple Leafs playoff aspirations. The season prior was a disaster, finishing last in the league with 69 points. But after acquiring Auston Matthews with the first-overall pick, along with the maturation of some of their younger talent, Toronto was finally on the upswing. That upswing came quicker than anybody could’ve imagined in 16-17, with Toronto scoring a 40-27-15 record, good enough for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

But going into the First Round, they weren’t even given a shot against the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals. They would have to rely on their young core to generate excitement (and goals). Part of their playoff arsenal was Kasperi Kapanen, a young 20-year-old winger who was a late-season call-up from the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.

The Moment

Yet, after a loss in Game 1, Toronto was surprisingly fighting tooth-and-nail with the powerful Capitals. Their good performance continued in Game 2, forcing yet another overtime. A single period wouldn’t solve anything, and the teams would battle in their third overtime period in just the second game of the series. It would be Toronto’s fourth line who would capitalize, as a beautiful behind-the-net pass from Brian Boyle out front to a poaching Kapanen ended the game. Toronto tied the series, creating a significant and pivotal moment for the immediate future of this squad.

After the Moment

Toronto would end up losing the series to Washington in six games. But that series (and that goal) started an era of promise and skill in Toronto that hadn’t been rivalled since the departure of Mats Sundin. Kapanen soon became a fixture in the team’s middle-six forward group before being traded to the team that originally drafted him, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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