Anytime Toronto Maple Leafs playoff games are brought up, 1967 and 2004 are the first two dates that come next. Well, 2004 is finally no more. The Toronto Maple Leafs Playoff winless drought has ended as John Tavares scored an overtime winner to take down the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games.
Toronto Maple Leafs Playoff Woes Snapped
It is a night to celebrate in Toronto. Finally, the curse has been lifted. When this team made playoffs back in 2017 (ironically, edging out the Lightning by just one point that season) and took the #1 seed Washington Capitals to Game 6, which featured multiple overtimes, no one thought it would be long before the Toronto Maple Leafs playoff winless streak would end.
However, things did not go as expected. Year after year, they just came up short. Four Game 7’s and a Game 5 (best of 5) loss later, they have finally done it. A hard-fought battle to the end, there are lots of talking points for both sides of this series.
Goaltending Not as Expected
Heading into the series, no one would have said the Leafs have an advantage in net. And rightfully so. Andrei Vasilevskiy is one of the best playoff performers we have ever seen and a massive reason Tampa made it to three straight Cup Finals. Ilya Samsonov was cast out of the previously mentioned Capitals with little no experience or success in the playoffs.
However, the script did not play out that way. Vasilevskiy really struggled for the majority of this series. After Game 4, when Toronto had a 3-1 lead, Vasilevskiy had a playoff-worst .856 save percentage. Lots of credit to Toronto, who threw endless bodies at the net to ensure Vasilevskiy could not track the puck. However, a sub-900 save percentage is far off of what we have come to expect. Vasilevskiy looked like his old self in Game 5, and was unlucky in Game 6.
Samsonov had some ups and downs in this series as well, but overall gave the Leafs exactly what they needed. He stood on his head in both Game 3 and 6, and was a massive reason the Leafs won three games in overtime. Was he perfect? Of course not. But a game-stealing performance is something Toronto had rarely seen in their previous playoff appearances. So this was a welcome change.
New Additions Play Different Roles
The Toronto Maple Leafs playoff success would always come down to key players. However, the deadline additions helped overhaul the depth of this team. Luke Schenn, Noel Acciari, Jake McCabe, Sam Lafferty, and most notably, Ryan O’Reilly were all brought in to bolster this group. These names brought a different “edge” to the Leafs that maybe they previously lacked. Regardless, O’Reilly and McCabe especially played huge roles in this series. Taking on big matchups and trying to shut down Tampa’s players.
Acciari was a solid depth piece but Matthew Knies, who the Leafs opted NOT to deal at the deadline, was one of their biggest adds. Knies only played three NHL games after his college season ended. But when he drew into the lineup Game 2, he made it clear he was not coming back out. Adding a forecheck and bug body the top six left-wing lacked, Knies fit right in.
On the other side, Tanner Jeannot unfortunately was not healthy. He only played a few games and in those that he did play, he at times looked invisible. The Bolts spent a ton of their assets to get him and it is a huge blow that he wasn’t 100%.
Big Players Get it Done
As previously mentioned, this was always going to come down to the big players. It is no secret what difference Playoff Morgan Rielly made. However, how fitting is it that captain John Tavares gets the series winner? Auston Matthews came alive, With five goals and four assists in the series. And while Mitch Marner wasn’t always at his best, he still had a crazy 11 points in the series.
Steven Stamkos entered Game 6 with just one goal and two assists. He did score a huge tying goal, but it wasn’t enough. The Lightning desperately needed another goal out of him at times in this series. Brayden Point also only managed four points, while Nikita Kucherov had one goal and five assists. On the blueline, the loss of Erik Cernak in Game 1 was crushing. And while Victor Hedman did look dominant when he played, missing a few games and still not being 100% is a tough break too.
Overall, the top guys on Toronto finally managed to get it done. The top guys for the Lightning fell short, not for a lack of effort.
One interesting thing to come out of this series was just one of the six games was won by the home team. That was Game 2, when the Leafs had a needed bounceback and won 7-3. The Lighting, unfortunately, lost all three home games in Overtime. With a good argument, they should have won all three. As mentioned, Samsonov shined in Games 3 and 6. In Game 4, the Lightning dropped a 4-1 lead with 10 minutes left… Sound familiar?
Where Things Go From Here
Now that the Toronto Maple Leafs playoff streak has ended, does the monkey off of the back lift them to new heights? As happy as fans are, this team was built to win a Stanley Cup, not just one round. The nice thing is they will have an extra day off as Game 7 between the Florida Panthers and Boston Bruins goes Sunday.
The Bruins have been unreal this season, but it would also be fitting for the Leafs to truly exorcise all of their playoff demons by defeating them. Or, they may face a Panthers team that struggled all season to find their President’s Trophy-winning ways of last year, but look to be peaking at the right time.
For Tampa, the message will no doubt be reload and go again. They are getting older, which is a concern. However, this core is still solid. For once they will have a long offseason, which may give some needed rest and recovery. Don’t count this team as dead and out just yet, there will be no doubt they will be back with a fight again next season.
Round 2 will begin in short time, but for now, Leaf fans can rightfully celebrate the end of a long Toronto Maple Leafs playoff winless drought.
Photo: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports