The Toronto Maple Leafs are back in the playoffs. You may have missed it – it was a pretty small story that didn’t get much media attention. But it’s true. Tonight, the Leafs make their return to the post-season, facing the Washington Capitals in the opener of their first-round series.
So today, let’s mark the occasion by looking back on some of the Leafs’ best post-season moments of the last 30 years.
Yes, I can hear you now, mumbling a punchline about this being an awfully short list. And it’s true, the Leafs don’t exactly have the most distinguished track record of consistent post-season excellence. But they have had a few decent runs, more than enough to put together a top 10, even if we’re going to have to lean on a few distinct eras.
(Spoiler alert: There’s going to be a lot of 1993, and if you’re a Senators fan you should probably just hit the back button right now.)
To be clear, this is a list of the best Maple Leafs playoff games from the Toronto fan's perspective. But if you're one of those fans on the other side of the fence, don't worry – we'll be back next week with a top 10 list of the worst Leafs playoff games. By then, there's a good chance it will even have one or two Washington games on it.
But we'll save the misery for next week. For now, the Leafs and Capitals are tied and it's all about the good times. We'll start the countdown roughly 23 years ago…
No. 10: 1994 Western Conference semi-final, Game 6: Maple Leafs 3, Sharks 2 (OT)
The 1993–94 Leafs' playoff run has an odd legacy. It's one of their deepest in the last few decades, and featured several memorable moments. But it had the misfortune of coming directly after the 1992–93 season, so it's often remembered like a decent sequel that had no chance of living up to the original.
The second round of that 1994 playoffs served up a valuable lesson to Leafs fans who were starting to get a little cozy with playoff success: Beware the underdog. The Sharks had just pulled off a major upset over the Red Wings to win the first series in franchise history, and figured to be easy fodder for a veteran Leafs team. Instead, they took Toronto right to within one Johan Garpenlov crossbar of elimination.
A lucky Mike Gartner bank shot in sudden death extended the series, and the Leafs won game seven two nights later. Most playoff overtime wins are euphoria; this one was just relief.
No. 9: 2000 Eastern Conference quarter-final, Game 5: Maple Leafs 2, Senators 1 (OT)
The first playoff matchup in the Battle of Ontario seems almost quaint now. There was none of the bad blood or controversy that came to define the rivalry, and even diehard fans of both teams probably don't remember all that much about the six-game series.
But if there's an exception, it came in game five. The home team had held serve through the series, but the Senators were on the verge of stealing one, holding a 1–0 advantage in the dying minutes of what had been, in all honestly, a dreadfully dull game. That's when Steve Thomas scored late to tie it up, and the two teams proceeded to play a frantic overtime that went back-and-forth until Thomas ended it.
The Leafs finished things off in Ottawa in game six, with the last goal of Wendel Clark's career serving as the winner.
No. 8: 2002 Eastern Conference final, Game 6: Hurricanes 2, Maple Leafs 1 (OT)
Is it weird to have a loss show up on a list of a team's 10 best playoff games? Yeah, it's weird. It's also extremely Leaf-y, let's be honest.
But here's the thing: The playoffs are about great moments, even the ones that eventually end in misery. Only one team wins the Cup every year, and as you may be aware, that team hasn't been the Maple Leafs in a very long time. Every one of the team's great post-season moments ended in disappointment eventually, just like most teams' do. Usually, that doesn't come for days or weeks. In this case, it took only a few minutes.
But still, when you're talking about moments of pure post-season exhilaration, there haven't been many better than Mats Sundin's goal in the dying seconds to prolong an unlikely Maple Leafs run. It may be the loudest moment in ACC history.
Martin Gelinas won the game for Carolina in overtime, ending the Leafs' season. But being a sports fan is about the moments, and the Leafs haven't had many better than this one.
No. 7: 1999 Eastern Conference semi-finals, Game 6: Maple Leafs 4, Penguins 3 (OT)
As you can see, there's lots of overtime on this list. That would be the case for most teams; playoff overtime is just about the best thing there is. But it's rare for a sudden-death, series-clinching winner to be overshadowed by something that happens right afterwards.
The 1998–99 Leafs were the first of the Pat Quinn era, and hadn't even been expected to make the playoffs. But they did, largely due to Curtis Joseph, and then they earned a first-round win over the Flyers. That set up a second-round meeting with the Penguins, and in a star-studded series, it was a plugger who ended it.
Garry Valk's winner sealed the series and sent the Leafs to their third conference final of the decade. But it was Danny Markov's celebration, in which he repeatedly mocked Jaromir Jagr's trademark salute, that became the enduring memory for many Leaf fans.
No. 6: 2002 Eastern Conference semi-final, Game 6: Maple Leafs 5, Senators 4
It feels like enough time has passed that we can just be honest about this third instalment in the Battle of Ontario: The Senators were the better team. They crushed the Leafs 5–0 in the opener, and Toronto needed triple-overtime heroics from Gary Roberts to win game two. That was the dynamic of the whole series; the Senators dominating, followed by the Maple Leafs scratching and clawing to keep it close.
Nowhere was that more evident than game six in Ottawa. The Senators came in riding the momentum of a controversial game five win powered by Daniel Alfredsson's hit from behind on Darcy Tucker.
The crowd was fired up and the Senators scored two quick ones, jumping out to an early 2-0 lead. As Pat Quinn admitted after the game, it felt like Ottawa might win 10–0. The Leafs weren't just going to finally lose to their provincial rivals — they were going to get outright humiliated.
And then came the hit:
The Leafs scored twice on the power play and went on to a 4–3 win. They'd head home for game seven, where they'd send the Senators home yet again with a 3–0 win.
Some playoff wins leave fans feeling like justice was served. This one just felt like an escape.
No. 5: 1993 Norris Division final, Game 1: Maple Leafs 2, Blues 1 (2OT)
Asking a Maple Leaf fan to pick their favourite playoff game from 1993 is like asking a parent to pick their favourite child, in the sense that they'll immediately start telling you boring stories about how wonderful all of them are until you deeply regret ever bringing it up in the first place.
But our first appearance for the 1993 squad comes against the Blues. You could make a case for game seven of this series, in which the Leafs flew out to a 4–0 first-period lead and won easily. But we'll go with a classic goaltending duel, in which Felix Potvin held down the fort while the Leafs peppered Joseph with over 60 shots. They finally beat him, but it took a memorable solo effort to do it.
No. 4: 1987 Norris Division final, Game 4: Maple Leafs 3, Red Wings 2 (OT)
The 1986–87 Maple Leafs were not good. They finished with 70 points; only three teams had fewer. But they were all sorts of fun, featuring Wendel Clark, John Brophy and the Ken Wregget/Allan Bester goaltending duo. And the beauty of the 1980s Norris Division was that you didn't have to be any good to make the playoffs. That was especially true in 1987, when the Norris pulled off the impressive feat of having an entire division finish under .500.
Somebody had to emerge from that trainwreck, and after dropping two of three against St. Louis in round one, the Leafs got hot. They won three straight to knock out the Blues in six, then took the first two in Detroit to open the second round (including a 7–2 blowout). The Wings took game three back in Toronto, and held a 2–1 lead late in game four. But Wendel Clark's goal sent the game to overtime, and an ugly-looking Mike Allison wraparound ended it.
This was the Harold Ballard-era Leafs, so it goes without saying that the good times couldn't last. The Wings won three straight to take the series, and the Leafs wouldn't win another series for six years. But during a decade in which fans at the Gardens had virtually nothing to cheer about, Allison's goal was a rare highlight. For one moment, at least, long-suffering Leafs fans actually had a team worth celebrating.
No. 3: 1993 Campbell Conference final, Game 1: Maple Leafs 4, Kings 1
It would be fair to call the Leafs/Kings series an eventful one. There was Glenn Anderson's overtime winner in game five that left the Leafs one win away from the Cup final. There was Clark's hat trick in game six, followed by Kerry Fraser's non-call. And there was game seven, which Wayne Gretzky has called the best game he ever played.
In a way, all of that makes it easier to appreciate the simpler times, like game one. No overtime. No missed high sticks. Just a close game that saw the Leafs pull away late thanks to four points from Doug Gilmour. As the third period ticked away, the Leafs were coasting to a 4–1 final, yet another win in a run that by then had captured the heart of a city, if not much of a country.
Look, everyone is entitled to their own opinion about the role of fighting in hockey, but if there's ever a time and place, you just saw it. Everything about the moment was fantastic; the downed superstar, the valiant captain, the perfect villain, the dirty hit (which actually was pretty clean but ignore that because we're rolling here), the weirdly ignored undercard bout, the near-miss on a coach fight, and Bob Cole calling it a "ruckus." It was perfection.
In most series, game one is the appetizer, briefly enjoyed and then quickly forgotten. In this series, at least from a Leafs fan's perspective, it was the peak.
No. 2: 2004 Eastern Conference quarter-final, Game 7: Maple Leafs 4, Senators 1
If 2000 was the birth of a rivalry and 2002 was its tipping point into legitimate bad blood, then 2004 was the fitting final chapter. By this point, the Senators were desperate for a series win. They'd literally guaranteed it. Game seven meant everything to Ottawa, and the Maple Leafs and their fans knew it. This was the big climax, the ultimate showdown, the epic final fight scene.
Except it wasn't. It was a laugher.
The Leafs were ahead 3–0 by the first intermission. They were up 4–1 midway through the third, which as we all know is an insurmountable lead in game seven. The game ended, the Leafs moved on, the Senators cleaned house, and the Battle of Ontario was essentially over. This game served as the exclamation point on the most one-sided rivalry in recent memory.
The Maple Leafs felt so bad about this game that they vowed to never win a playoff series again.
No. 1: 1993 Norris Division semi-final, game seven: Maple Leafs 4, Red Wings 3 (OT)
Any time you can win a game seven in overtime, it's going to rank high on your list of memorable games. If you can do it as a road underdog, even better. If the goal is scored by an adorable Russian child, you're pretty much a lock.
But there's another reason this game holds a special place in Leafs fans' hearts, and it has to do with the bigger picture. The Ballard era was over in Toronto, in that the cantankerous owner had passed away and the team was out of his family's control, but it wasn't really over. Cliff Fletcher had arrived to clean up the mess, but the road ahead seemed long. Forget winning a Cup — long-suffering Maple Leafs fans just wanted the team to matter again.
The series with the Red Wings was winnable – revisionist history paints it as some giant upset, but the two teams were only four points apart in the standings. But from the beginning, it seemed like the Hockey Gods were intent on teaching Toronto fans a lesson about expectations. The Wings won the first two games in blowouts, with the only Leafs highlight coming when Potvin snapped on Dino Ciccarelli. The Leafs won two close ones at home to even the series. Then came a game five comeback capped off by Mike Foligno's overtime winner.
Things were going well. Leaf fans were happy. The team was headed back to the Gardens with a chance to close it out. And then the Red Wings slaughtered them, winning 7–3.
Message received, said Leafs fans. Our bad for getting our hopes up.
And then came game seven, playing out as a classic heart-breaker. The Leafs kept it close, but trailed late before Gilmour's goal with three minutes remaining forced overtime. Every Leafs fan remembers what came next.
It's not the nicest goal you've ever seen, but it didn't need to be. The Maple Leafs had actually won. They weren't a punchline. Some small piece of the Harold Ballard stench had been shaken free.
It wasn't a Cup – this is still Toronto, after all. But at least it was the start of something. The 1993 run lasted six weeks, and by the end of it the idea of the Maple Leafs being relevant again didn't seem quite so crazy. Toronto sports fans who'd drifted over to the Blue Jays throughout the ’80s started drifting back. And the Leafs were good for most of the next decade.
Maybe the Leafs get another moment like that again over the next few weeks. Maybe they don't. But there's a chance, however small, to be something other than a punchline, and Leaf fans will take it.