TAMPA, Fla. — The Maple Leafs finally exorcised their playoff demons — and are off to the second round of the NHL playoffs.
John Tavares scored at 4:36 of overtime and Ilya Samsonov made 31 saves as Toronto defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 on Saturday to win their series 4-2 and advance in the post-season for the first time in nearly two decades.
The Leafs captain threw a puck in front on the winning sequence that went in off Lightning defenceman Darren Raddysh’s skate and in to send Toronto players spilling off the bench.
Auston Matthews had the goal in regulation for the Leafs, who lost to Tampa in seven games last spring and were under intense pressure to finally break through in the playoffs after a string of failures.
Steven Stamkos replied for the Lightning, who saw their streak of three straight trips to the Stanley Cup final come to an end. Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 20 shots.
The Leafs last made the NHL’s final eight in 2004 — before the league instituting a salary cap, before Twitter was launched, and just over four months after Paul Martin became Canada’s 21st prime minister — when they beat the Ottawa Senators in seven games.
Joe Nieuwendyk was the hero that night with two goals in the first period on a shaky Patrick Lalime. Toronto would go on to lose a second-round matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers when Jeremy Roenick scored the clinching goal in overtime in Game 6.
The wait for another series triumph in hockey’s biggest market would last 6,948 days.
The Leafs entered Saturday with 10 straight losses in games where they had a chance to eliminate an opponent dating back to the start of the Matthews-Mitch Marner era in 2018, including a 4-2 loss in Game 5 this spring on home ice, in the process of stumbling at the post-season’s first hurdle six years running.
Including a first-round defeat in 2013, Toronto’s record in games where it could clinch a series sat at 0-11 before puck drop — the second-longest streak in NHL history.
Coming off Cup triumphs in 2020 and 2021 before falling in last year’s final to Colorado in Game 6 at home, the Lightning tied the score 1-1 at 4:11 of the third when Stamkos scored his second of the series on a rebound.
Matthews opened the scoring at 13:47 of the middle period when he blasted a one-timer over Vasilevskiy’s shoulder for his series-leading fifth goal. Stamkos hit the post on the power play later in the period to match the crossbar Toronto’s Michael Bunting struck earlier in the second.
Samsonov made a big stop on Stamkos early in a spirited first before Vasilevskiy denied T.J. Brodie after some nice work from Marner.
Toronto had the only power plays in the opening 20 minutes, but Tampa had the best opportunities on short-handed chances off the sticks of Alex Killorn and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.
With a tornado watch issued for the area that cancelled the Lightning’s fan viewing party outside Amalie Arena, the Leafs made some lineup changes ahead of Game 6.
Bunting returned after serving a three-game suspension for an illegal check to the head in the series opener on Tampa defenceman Erik Cernak before being made a healthy scratch Thursday.
Struggling blueliner Justin Holl sat in favour of Timothy Liljegren and Erik Gustafsson, while wingers Zach Aston-Reese and Sam Lafferty also watched from the press box as the Leafs went with 11 forwards and seven defencemen.
Tampa beat Toronto 7-3 in Game 1, but lost Cernak on a sequence that kept the minute-crunching defenceman sidelined the rest of the series.
Toronto picked up a 7-2 victory two nights later before securing consecutive overtime wins in Tampa, including a 5-4 decision Monday after trailing 4-1 midway through the third period to build a 3-1 series lead.
The Lightning responded with that 4-2 victory Thursday at Scotiabank Arena to stave off elimination before the Leafs finally sealed the long-awaited deal Saturday.
Toronto’s loss to Tampa in last year’s playoffs resigned the organization to that sixth consecutive opening-round exit, and more tough questions about roster makeup, management philosophy and coaching.
The Original Six franchise elected to stay the course with its high-priced core of players, general manager Kyle Dubas and head coach Sheldon Keefe.
The decision paid off.
The Leafs made the playoffs just once in 11 years following the 2004-05 lockout, with their only appearance ending in a stunning Game 7 collapse against Boston.
Toronto, which already had Marner, Rielly and William Nylander in its system, then bottomed out in 2015-16 for the right to draft Matthews first overall.
The Leafs returned to the playoffs the next spring, falling to Washington in a solid showing from their young roster.
Toronto followed that up with two more seven-game defeats to Boston in 2018 and 2019.
The Leafs were then tripped up inside the NHL’s COVID-19 bubble in 2020 by Columbus. Toronto dominated the league’s pandemic-necessitated North Division in 2021 before blowing a 3-1 series lead and losing in seven to Montreal for another stunning low point.
The Leafs started to turn a corner by going toe-to-toe with the battle-tested Lighting last year, but lost in a matchup that went the distance despite leading the series 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2, including an OT defeat in Game 6 where in Tampa they led in the third period.
A year later, all that heartbreak is now well and truly in the past.
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