The Maple Leafs, Better Late Than Never, Finally Win a Playoff Round
TORONTO — The square outside the empty N.H.L. arena that is home to the Maple Leafs was jammed and jumping like a mosh pit on a damp, cold — even for Canadian springtime — Saturday night.
Far south in Tampa, Fla., center John Tavares scored in overtime against the Lightning to end an excruciating stretch of playoff futility for the Maple Leafs. Kyle Dubas, the team’s general manager, who has long been criticized for persisting with his underachieving roster, exploded to his feet in his arena box, jabbing the air like a prize fighter. Behind the bench, Coach Sheldon Keefe was mobbed by his assistants, and the players jettisoned their sticks, clambering over the boards and piling into their teammates on the ice.
Back in Toronto, near and far from the outdoor crowd watching the game on a ginormous screen, car horns bleated across this longtime playoff wasteland. Ah-onk! Ah-onk! Ah-onk!
The mob, some members of it screaming, some crying, some setting off fireworks, some suddenly shirtless, throbbed like a nightclub throng. A few dramatic celebrators climbed lamp posts, hanging by one hand and filming the scenes with the other.
It was thrilling madness for a city that has had a chance to go hard over sports only a few times this century: when Sidney Crosby scored the winning goal for Canada in the championship game against the United States at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics; when Jose Bautista’s three-run shot (and subsequent bat flip heard ‘round the world) helped the Blue Jays win an American League division series in 2015; and when the Raptors won the N.B.A. finals in 2019. Ah-onk! Ah-onk! Ah-onk!
The Leafs, who last won the Stanley Cup in 1967, hadn’t won a playoff round since 2004.
“Which is hard to believe!” chirped Darryl Sittler, the popular Leafs captain who played 12 seasons in Toronto in the 1970s and early ’80s, and still holds the N.H.L. record for most points scored in a single regular-season game with 10.
Mitch Marner, a Leafs right wing from suburban Toronto, called it a “relief.” Auston Matthews, the star American center, called it “pretty exciting” and “a small step on a long journey.”
After beating Ottawa in 2004 and then losing to Philadelphia in the second round, the Leafs missed the playoffs the next season. Then missed them again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. In 2013, they ended their drought, but were stunned by the Bruins in a Game 7 collapse that Torontonians still mope about. Then there were another three seasons of missing the postseason.
“When we lost our first game at home, everybody thinks, ‘Oh here we go again,’” Sittler said of the lopsided loss that opened this year’s series with Tampa Bay. “But then we win the second, and then go into Tampa and get a few breaks, unlike other years, where the other team got the breaks and we collapsed. Boston kind of destroyed our hopes and chances over the last few years.”
That explained the crowd in Maple Leaf Square chanting: “We want Florida! We want Florida!”
When the Leafs drafted Matthews first overall in 2016, they began surrounding him with millions of dollars in talent — chiefly Marner, the fourth overall pick in 2015; Tavares, a free-agent signing in 2018; and right wing William Nylander, the team’s 2014 first-round pick.
Still, good regular seasons ended in playoff disappointments. The N.H.L.’s young glamour team left Toronto in a spiritual slump each spring. But Dubas left the core intact, adding and subtracting in goal and around the edges, and locking in the longest serving Leaf, the talented defenseman Morgan Rielly, with an eight-year contract extension in 2021.
“Management believed in them and were sticking with these guys,” Sittler said. “We believe in them. And they’re going to take us to where we think this hockey club could go.”
After the game, Keefe said he felt all year that this season was unlike previous ones. “I’m thrilled for Leafs fans that they get to see second-round hockey,” said Keefe, who is in his fourth season as head coach. “It’s felt different all season. and I’m glad to be able to say now that it is different.”
An unmistakable gravitas was attached to the Leafs’ season on Nov. 11, when the former Leafs star Borje Salming, a Swedish defenseman, was honored before the annual Hockey Hall of Fame Game.
Salming, who had late stage amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, had traveled to Toronto from Sweden for the occasion despite being unable to talk, struggling to walk and needing a feeding tube. With Sittler and Mats Sundin, the retired Swedish center, flanking him, there stood three men who defined the Leafs’ long suffering past, while its present and future looked on. When Sittler held Salming’s right arm in the air to acknowledge the crowd as they left the ice, the past, present and future was of a piece.
“I saw a stoic look on every player’s face,” Sittler said. “I became very emotional because I’m thinking not too long ago that it was Borje and I, young guys, loving what we do, playing on a Leafs team in a packed house.”
Salming and Sittler came close to a Stanley Cup in 1978 when the Leafs lost in the conference finals. He doesn’t remember it by the year but by the number of games against each team and what they were like: needing seven rugged matches against the Islanders, then losing four straight to an outstanding Montreal Canadiens team.
When the Leafs had another successful run in 1993-94, making it to the conference finals for the second straight season, Sittler worked in the front office.
“The city was on fire,” he said. “People would honk their horns up and down Yonge Street, flags flying.” He added, “It’s been so long, most fans today weren’t even alive when they won the Cup back in ’67. It’s been so long, you know.”
“I experienced the Raptors winning in the city,” he said. “If the Leafs, that’s a few notches up in the magnitude. Everybody is waiting for it.”
After being embarrassed, 7-3, in Game 1 against the Lightning, the Leafs won three straight, including two on the road in overtime. In Game 4, Toronto fell behind, 4-1, then scored three goals in the third period in a little more than six minutes before winning in overtime. It has been a season of heroics for the Leafs on the ice and off, generations apart, in a city that is, to say the least, ready.
“It’s special to be a Maple Leaf,” said Tavares, who was born in suburban Toronto and played for the Islanders before signing a seven-year, $77 million contract with his boyhood favorite team in 2018. “You know growing up what it means to people, especially with some of the disappointments we’ve had.”
In November, Sittler cried beside Salming for the cruelty of A.L.S., not hockey. The Globe and Mail columnist Cathal Kelly wrote that night that it was Toronto’s own Lou Gehrig moment, “the great image of the past 20 years of Leafs’ history.”
Salming died a few weeks later at home in Sweden.
What no one has said out loud is that Gehrig died in June 1941, and the Yankees won the World Series four months later. The Leafs have a long way to go, but symbology hangs heavy on this franchise, this city.
Sittler recalled that night when the Leafs players shook Salming’s hand and hugged him. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” he said. “It’s hard to even write a script like that, to have it happen.”
Now, against Boston or Florida, the Leafs will try to compose an ending for that unfinished script, one Salming and Sittler didn’t get to write themselves.