By Stan Smith
I have waited a third of my life for the Toronto Maple Leafs to win a playoff round. We could all do the “Where were you 19 years ago thing?” Thankfully, the drought is over and done with.
Johnny Toronto & The Third Road Overtime Goal
John Tavares scored at 4:36 of the overtime period to give the Maple Leafs their first postseason series-clinching win since they defeated the Ottawa Senators 4-1 on April 20, 2004, to advance to the Eastern Conference semi-final versus the Philadelphia Flyers.
With the goal, the Maple Leafs became the first team in the history of the NHL to score overtime goals in three road games in a playoff series.
The last time Tavares scored an overtime goal ended a 23-year playoff series-winning drought for the New York Islanders. It was April 24, 2016, when Tavares scored in the second overtime to help the Islanders defeat the Florida Panthers by the same 2-1 score. The win was the Islanders’ first postseason series since 1993 when they beat the Washington Capitals in six games. (1993. Ugh. More nightmares)
After a scoreless first period, Auston Matthews took a pass from the point from TJ Brodie and one-timed it past Andrei Vasilevskiy to put the Maple Leafs up 1-0. It was Matthews’ fifth goal in the last four games of the series and his fifth in the six games. It was the 22nd playoff goal in Matthews’ career, which ties him for 11th place all-time for the Maple Leafs with Gordie Drillon (1913). Matthews is two goals shy of Frank Mahovlich’s 24.
Ilya Samsonov continued his trend this season of following a loss with a solid game and a win. He was stellar in stopping 31 of 32 shots in this game. According to Naturalstattrick.com Samsonov faced 22 High-Danger Scoring Chances in this game.
Samsonov’s numbers were not great in this series. He finished it with a 0.900 Save Percentage and a 3:14 Goals-Against-Average. However, they were better than Vasilevskiy’s (0.875 Save Percentage and 3.56 Goals-Against-Average). Samsonov made the big saves when the games were on the line.
In the playoffs it is not about putting up good stats, it is about winning games. That is all that matters. In over 100 playoff games with the Edmonton Oilers, Hockey Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr posted a lifetime Save Percentage of 0.896 and a Goals-Against-Average of 3.04. But, he won 74 of the 111 games he played and earned five Stanley Cup rings.
Samsonov came into this season with a dismal 1-6 record in the playoffs. After going 4-2 to this point in the postseason he has raised his record to 5-8. Hopefully, by the time his playoffs are over he can get his record above 0.500.
I would have never thought coming into these playoffs Matthews Knies would have his name in the NHL record book for assisting on the first series-winning overtime goal scored by the Maple Leafs in 24 years.
Even more amazing is the fact the Knies was on the ice for all three overtime game-winning goals by the Maple Leafs in this series. Talk about a player gaining the confidence of his coach right off the bat.
I can’t ever remember a player signing out of college, playing just three regular season games, and then coming into the playoffs and having such an impact.
The Maple Leafs have won seven of the eight games (three regular season and five playoff games) that Knies has played in.
I have to bring attention to Luke Schenn’s play in this game and in the series. He has been a stalwart defensively and has been key in Morgan Rielly having the best playoffs of his career.
There is another part of his games that has stood out to me. In the past, there have been some Maple Leafs’ defensemen that have made me shudder every time they have had the puck on their stick in the defensive zone. For a player whose forte is his play without the puck, almost every time Schenn had the puck in his zone, in this game, and in the series, he was able to create room for himself to make a play with it
Schenn has the ability to appear to slow the game down and create calm amongst the turmoil. There was only once in this game that the puck did not go from his stick to another Toronto player’s stick in the Maple Leafs’ zone. The one time he did turn it over he was immediately all over the player and prevented them from making a play with it.
This is exactly the type of player I am sure the Maple Leafs envisioned Schenn would become when they picked him 5th overall in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. They just never expected it to be 900 games later and after he had played for six other teams.
Scoring Under Pressure
The biggest criticism this version of the Maple Leafs has received in the past has been their inability to score when it really counted. That wasn’t the case in this series.
In Game 3 they were down a goal in the dying minutes and scored with their goalie pulled to tie the game and then won it in overtime.
In Game 4 they were down three goals with just over ten minutes to go in the third period. They stormed back and scored three goals in the last half of the period and won that game in overtime.
In Game 5 they were down by two goals. They scored a goal to pull within one late in the third period with their goalie pulled. They failed to get the equalizer in that game, but they had their chances.
Then of course they scored in the extra period in this game to eliminate the Lightning.
There were a number of breakdowns on Steven Stamkos’ game-tying goal in the third period. First Knies lost a battle for the puck along the boards deep in the Toronto zone. Then Erik Gustafsson, who had knocked the puck up to Knies, failed to react fast enough and remained out of the play in the corner.
When Darren Raddysh fired the puck on net from the point, Mark Giordano failed to block the shot from getting through to Samsonov. William Nylander, who had Stamkos covered, let him get away from him and get open. Alex Killorn provided a screen and a distraction for Samsonov who stopped Raddysh’s shot but let the rebound get away from him right onto Stamkos’ stick. Stamkos made no mistake, firing the rebound into the open cage before Samsonov could recover.
I am sure most Maple Leafs’ fans thought Toronto could win this series. I am guessing they never thought they would win it in the way they did. Rather than playing to their puck-possession strengths, and controlling play, the Maple Leafs played a defense-first game and spent a lot of time collapsing down in front of Samsonov.
That strategy prevented the Lightning from penetrating into the dangerous areas of the ice. As a result, Tampa carried the play for long stretches of each game and spent tons of time in the Toronto end of the ice.
The Maple Leafs had 138 blocked shots in the series, including 29 in Game 6. Their 138 blocks are the most by any team in the first round of the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs, 24 more than the New York Islanders, whose 114 blocks are the second most.
They also lead the 2023 playoffs in hits with 277, one more than the Lightning. After being accused of being too soft to win in the postseason, the Maple Leafs have just won the most physical series in these playoffs, and they outhit their opposition while doing so.
They definitely “Won Ugly” in this series.
The Maple Leafs get a couple of days off to rest and recover while awaiting to see who their next-round opponents are to be. The Boston Bruins and the Florida Panthers will decide that Sunday night in Boston. After being down 3-1 to the Bruins, the Panthers have won back-to-back games to take their series to the limit.
I have mixed feelings about who I want to see win this series. On one hand, I feel the Panthers would be the easier of the two opponents. The Maple Leafs finished 19 points ahead of Florida. They were also 3-0 in head-to-head play versus the Panthers in the regular season.
On the other hand, after defeating one demon and finally winning a series-deciding game to make it past the first round of the playoffs, maybe now is the time to defeat the Boston Bruins demon as well. It might be time to avenge their three first-round losses to them.
Either way, I agree with the general sentiment expressed by the players and coach following the game Saturday night. Getting the first-round monkey off their back is great but it is just the first step in these playoffs.
We have no way of truly knowing who the best opponent for the Maple Leafs will be. All we can hope for is the Panthers and the Bruins beat the living crap out of each other, while the Maple Leafs get ready and healthy.
Hopefully, Toronto can build off of their success against the Lightning and successfully take the next step on the road toward the Stanley Cup.