TORONTO — At about this point last year Leo Komarov had his bags packed and plane ticket home to Finland almost ready to go, his Toronto Maple Leafs wrapping up a 30th-place season.
Even Komarov, one of the longer-serving Leafs, didn’t expect his team to leap back into the post-season so soon — the Leafs clinching their first such berth in four years and second since 2004 with a 5-3 win over the Penguins Saturday night.
"If I’m really honest, maybe not," said Komarov. "But the thing when we started playing, when you see the young kids, you see they’ve got a lot of skills and when we start winning you think we’ve got a pretty good chance. The closer we get the bigger chance we have so you kind of start of thinking ‘Maybe, we’ve got a chance to get in here’."
The Leafs playoff berth is really a tale of two turnarounds — from last season, and from three years before that when a vastly different Toronto entity last cracked the post-season.
Mike Babcock promised "pain" when he was hired as the Leafs head coach in May 2015, but that pain was really short-lived. The end result of one last-place season was the best odds for Toronto to land Auston Matthews, the best rookie in the 100-year history of the franchise.
It was Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and the emergence of a historic rookie class that truly catapulted the Leafs from last season’s dull misery into the post-season. The mostly steady goaltending of Frederik Andersen — who was injured against Pittsburgh — helped, as did career years from Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner and Tyler Bozak. But it was the instantaneous contributions of the rookies that made the biggest difference from one year to the other along with Babcock behind the bench.
Matthews became only the fourth rookie under 20 in NHL history to score 40 goals, his 40th into an empty net sealing the Leafs wild playoff-clinching win over Pittsburgh. That goal paled in importance to fellow rookie Connor Brown, whose 20th of the season Saturday gave the Leafs a late regulation lead over the Penguins.
Then there was Kasperi Kapanen, his first NHL goal and point a few minutes earlier tying the game at three.
Babcock said he told his coaching staff at the beginning of the year that if his club was to get into the post-season it would take until Game 82 — which comes Sunday against Columbus.
"But to be honest with you, I didn’t know the kids could be this good," Babcock said.
The Leafs return to the post-season isn’t just about the jump from last year though, but from four years earlier when they last cracked the playoffs. Toronto of those days was built tenuously around veterans like Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf, ultimately unravelling in Game 7 of a first-round series against Boston.
Coaches, managers, and scouts were fired in the ensuing turbulence, the organization overhauled in almost every way imaginable. Brendan Shanahan was brought in as president, Babcock as coach, and Lou Lamoriello as general manager. And of course, the roster was altered considerably, suddenly built around skilled young players like Matthews and Marner.
The club revamped its logo and jerseys too.
Just about everything has changed save for those five players that still remain: Komarov, Bozak, Kadri, Gardiner, and James van Riemsdyk.
"It’s definitely been some ups and downs over the course of that," van Riemsdyk said.
"That was a good year too and a good team and now it’s different," Komarov added. "You’ve got younger guys who just came to the league and it’s great for them, like they’ve got a chance to win right away. And if not, they still get a lot of experience."
It wasn’t the smoothest effort that got them into the post-season, Brown’s late goal saving the club from defeat against a Penguins squad that had Sidney Crosby, Kessel and few other regulars — Pittsburgh opting to rest a handful of players ahead of the playoffs.
Momentous in the win was the early exit of Andersen, bumped in the head by Tom Sestito and unable to return. It was the second such exit for the 27-year-old in the last two weeks, his status now a real question mark ahead of a post-season matchup against either Ottawa or Washington.
Babcock had no update on Andersen other than to suggest that "ideally" he would start the finale against the Blue Jackets.
The Leafs coach described the playoff berth as momentous for not only the city and fans, but those young players who live on their phones and "know what everyone thinks and how excited everyone was".
Babcock said he spent the first two years of his Toronto experience with rarely a peep of interaction among his neighbours and now people were talking to him "every single second for the last week so it must be a big deal."
"This is a great situation for everyone," Komarov said. "For us older guys we’ve got a chance to win and for the youngest guys they battle for it right away."