Fans of the Toronto Maple Leags have to be feeling a little deja vu at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday night. The Leafs were hosting the Tampa Bay Lightning n an all-important Game 5. It was not yet the midpoint of the first period and the home team was trailing 2-0. Much-maligned winger William Nylander had taken an offensive zone penalty. It was almost two hundred feet from his team’s end of the ice. Before Nylander’s penalty was over, defenceman Mark Giordano joined him in the penalty box after cross-checking Corey Perry. It seemed like the old Toronto Maple Leafs playoff narrative was back.
The pregame anticipation and excitement of the crowd were gone. It had been replaced by tension and silence. Supporters of this Leafs team had been here before. It seemed inevitable that it would soon be 3-0 and another slow, nervous start in a pressure-packed situation would doom the Leafs. You could almost visualize the naysayers picking at the carcass of this team after another collapse in a big first-round moment.
But then, the narrative changed from its usual script. What happened over the next couple of hours is why we love sports. It is still the best reality programming on television. For the Leafs, it was their criticized stars and goaltender who changed the plot of this story. And for once, it might lead to an unexpected ending.
Change in Toronto Maple Leafs Playoff Narrative Starts With Jack Campbell
The old-age hockey adage is again proving to be true. The most important position in hockey is your goaltender. An excellent goalie can make up for a lot of other team deficiencies. For about a decade and a half between the early 1990s and early 2000s, the Leafs made a habit of stealing playoff games from their opponents. Felix Potvin, Curtis Joseph, and Ed Belfour all had turns of stealing games their team had no business winning. Jack Campbell just joined that club.
In other first-round defeats, it was common for Leaf fans to groan over a soft goal let in by former starting goaltender Frederik Andersen. Now, Campbell is coming up big for this team. Without his performance in Game 5, the Leafs are trailing this series when they leave for Tampa Bay. Plain and simple. The Lightning had numerous high-quality scoring opportunities to make it 3-0 and essentially end the game. Campbell continuously shut the door until his team got settled. After the Lightning had tied the game 3-3 in the third period, he had one last huge save on Nikita Kucherov. In years past, the timing of a soft goal was often the Leafs’ undoing. Now their goalie is standing tall during the important moments. Thus far in this series, he has outplayed his Lightning counterpart, Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Nylander Outlook Changes Within Game
During Game 4, William Nylander had a viral social media moment for all the wrong reasons.
I love William Nylander when he’s on his game, but stuff like this is infuriating. He needs to stop doing these things pic.twitter.com/OFRMd9uRPf
— Michael (@TheLeafsIMO) May 9, 2022
Many detractors of this team would point to this video as exhibit A of why this team failed in previous Stanley Cup Playoffs. His penalty during the first period didn’t help his cause. A team with the talent to spare, but lacking the drive to get the job done. Another playoff disappointment this season, and fans will likely point to these types of plays and suggest that Nylander should be the first to go in any offseason reboot.
Fast forward to the latter half of Game 5. That same pleasure-skating Nylander was driving hard to the net for a scoring chance. He knew he was going to get filled in by Lightning defenceman Cal Foote. Nylander took the hit. On the way down, he even swatted a second time at the puck in an attempt to score. That kind of effort gets noticed for the right reasons. His crescendo came in the third period when he scored on a beautiful wrist to put the Leafs ahead. By the end of the night, he was one of the key figures of the Leafs’ comeback, registering one goal and two assists.
Matthews, Marner, Tavares Also Changing Their Playoff Stories
Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and to a lesser extent, John Tavares have had to take the brunt of their team’s failures during recent playoff performances. They have been labeled as underachievers. This series is shifting that storyline. Matthews and Marner lead the team with seven points through five games. Tavares lived up to the captain’s “C” during Game 5. Yes, his goal came from a fortuitous bounce, but his pass to defencemen Morgan Rielly for the tying goal was perfect.
Fittingly, Matthews and Marner combined for the game-winning goal with just over six minutes left in the game. Perhaps, a series-shifting moment depending on the outcome of the remaining games. The Leafs’ most important players came up huge in the most critical moments.
Narrative Not Changed Yet
While the Game 5 win set their fans into delirium, there remains work to be done. The next challenge is finally, FINALLY, winning a potential series-clinching game. Oh, and the Lightning happens to be 16-0 following a loss during the last three Stanley Cup Playoffs. But, as acclaimed sportswriter Bob Ryan says, “something is true or factual until it doesn’t happen anymore”. This could be true of both the Leafs’ failures and the Lightning’s successes. In the final two games of this series, one of these narratives will change. It’s Reality TV at its finest.