TORONTO — They have cycled through five general managers, six head coaches and 218 different players.
They’ve seen the Vegas Golden Knights come into existence and immediately win three playoff rounds. They’ve watched as Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa and Vancouver each made a run to the Stanley Cup Final. In fact, they’ve seen all but one other NHL franchise enjoy the kind of playoff breakthroughs that have eluded them for 16 long years.
And here the Toronto Maple Leafs are with a chance to advance.
The current players bear no responsibility for the 5,955 days that have passed since Joe Nieuwendyk and Ed Belfour led Toronto to a Game 7 victory over the Ottawa Senators on April 20, 2004, but they are now tied up in the larger story.
That will certainly be on the minds of many tuning in for Sunday night’s all-or-nothing Game 5 against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
This Stanley Cup qualifying series will immediately enter folklore in these parts if Toronto gets through. The odds of the Maple Leafs erasing a 3-0 deficit with less than four minutes to play and winning Friday’s game, after blowing their own 3-0 lead in an overtime loss 24 hours earlier, have been pegged at roughly 1-in-140,000.
The obituaries were being written on their season and they improbably found new life.
“The feeling after the game was tremendous,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “The amount of joy that I saw from our team is beyond anything I’ve seen from us.”
Forget the organization’s larger history, the core of the current group feels the weight of just these last few years. Auston Matthews has spoken of the “ups and downs” they’ve endured with consecutive playoff losses to Boston and a six-game defeat to Washington in 2017, and wanting to avoid writing the same old story.
They’ve shouldered increasingly growing expectations and been building towards a breakthrough. That’s what Friday night may ultimately come to represent. Toronto played 1:59 with Andersen on the bench for an extra attacker, completed 13 passes, generated five scoring chances and found the three goals it needed to force overtime.
Then Matthews ended it with a lethal one-timer on the power play after Rielly was tripped by Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno.
“I’ve never been a part of anything like that,” said veteran Leafs forward Jason Spezza, who was a member of the 2003-04 Senators but didn’t play against Toronto the night it last clinched a playoff series.
“With the firepower we have with these guys, the way they can put the puck in the net, we’re never out of it. And there’s a great sense of belief in our group.”
In the most unusual of playoffs, they’ve had a wild series with Columbus.
A shutout for each team to start followed by the back-to-back, three-goal comebacks. The swings of momentum almost feel like something you’d see in the NBA, rather than the NHL, with both the Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs going on goal binges.
But as we’ve learned by now, nothing should be taken for granted. Lightning coach Jon Cooper half-jokingly said “well, three-goal leads aren’t safe” when asked about the challenge that awaits his team.
On Sunday night, Toronto and Columbus will each look to lock things down with their seasons on the line. Grab a lead and squeeze the life out of their opponent.
“We can’t beat ourselves,” said Marner. “We know that we can play a great defensive game when we put our minds to it — back-checking-wise, forechecking, not giving them a whole lot coming up the ice.”
Minds in small places.
A big opportunity to create new memories.