Skip to content

Oakville's John Tavares makes history

Leafs get the monkey off their back, and the sky's the limit
Steven Ellis/Daily Faceoff
Steven Ellis/Daily Faceoff

Last night's game was critical. Sure, the Leafs had two chances going into it, but game 7s are notoriously a bit of a crapshoot, everything on the line: hockey is a game played on ice with a rubber disc that sometimes just bounces funny and produces a random-seeming result. This aspect of hockey is why we play best of seven, so that the luck, the fallibility of referees, and bad bounces, even out, and (mostly) the best team comes out on top.

This night, with the kind of "I will not be denied" overtime goal that fans live for, John Tavares changed the narrative for our Toronto Maple Leafs. For the first time in 19 years, the Leafs will go to a second playoff round.

Matthews scored first, playing the best playoff hockey we have seen from the superstar. Number 34 played 200-foot hockey whenever he was on the ice, which was just enough more than usual to make a difference. I would still argue that he and other top players are not getting enough ice time to really find their rhythm: nostalgia for the 40-minute games Doug Gilmour played in the '93 run for the cup. Much maligned for not really getting into the game in the playoffs, in this series Matthews has had four goals, a fight, and tonight, a serious bodycheck. Let's hope this will be a turning point for the big, graceful, skilled centre with magical hands and eyes in the back of his head. His exciting regular season play came into its own as his hand healed towards the end. For the first time, he has shown signs as this series develops of beginning to understand the playoff program.

Toronto Maple Leafs | Photo by Luis Fallas on Unsplash
Toronto Maple Leafs | Photo by Luis Fallas on Unsplash

Mitch Marner also had a lot of minutes tonight and was close more than once, as was Willy Nylander, who unfortunately made the wrong positioning decision to let Tampa's Stamkos tie the game in the second. Marner, clearly one of the greats in Leafs' franchise history, has really been delivering in this series. 

Nylander, who in the last couple of playoff years has been alone in stepping up under pressure, has yet to really make his mark, but he too is playing with confidence. The core of Matthews, Marner and Nylander seem to have come into their own at the right time. Tavares, the fourth member and captain, has shown consistent determination and leadership all the way through. 

The shots favoured Tampa, 32-22, but Ilya Samsonov played truly stellar goal, denying the Lightning again and again. And the Leafs had good puck possession. Players like Brodie (assist on the Matthews goal), Morgan Rielly (who has been a true leader in this series, with three goals), the rookie Matthew Knies, Giordano, Schenn, and Acciari all contributed. Michael Bunting returned from his suspension ready to prove himself and was a sparkplug, seemingly recharged. Jake McCabe was a stalwart on defence, and Lilljegren, too played well.

The play was characterized by winning battle after battle on the boards (Knies surprised here, his inexperience perhaps overshadowed by youthful enthusiasm and drive), by avoidance of errors, and by consistent regrouping when the play went the wrong way. It was clear from early in the game that the Leafs were playing an aggressive but collected style. They controlled the play just enough, and Samsonov saved them when they didn't, with the help of disciplined defenders. 

Tavares held onto the puck from behind the net, came around with a slick pivot, and scored a veteran goal to change the world. "A hell of a battle...we've had some disappointments; great to get this done for the fans," he said. The Leafs' captain, who scored a hat trick in game 2 of this series, has provided the kind of steady, get-it-done leadership it takes to prevail in the playoffs. Growing up in Oakville, he wore Leafs' pyjamas to bed as a boy and left the captaincy of the NY Islanders to bring back hockey pride to Toronto. There is a long way to go to the holy grail of the Stanley Cup, but this is a good start.

The Leafs looked competent and confident. They got solid play from everyone and great play from their top players. Tampa has two Stanley Cups with the current contingent. While Boston, whom the Leafs will likely face next, have been a powerhouse in the regular season, getting past Tampa is no small achievement, and it was done, in particular, in this critical game in a businesslike fashion. Three overtime wins on the road.

It bodes well.