‘We’re not done’: Maple Leafs finally slay the Round 1 dragon

John Tavares turned and fired the puck on net, which took a fortunate bounce past Andrei Vasilevskiy to send the Toronto Maple Leafs to the second round for the first time since 2004, as they defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 in overtime.

TAMPA — What it sounds like when it finally happens is loud and happy.

Hollers of joy. 

Gleeful expletives at full throat.

Audible back-pats and man-hugs.

The crack-hiss of fresh Coors Lights getting popped.

The Leafs’ goofy party-rock win song, “Juicy Wiggle” get cued up and cranked to high volume.

Someone near the showers replays Joe Bowen’s cathartic “Ho-leeee Mackinaw!” radio call of John Tavares’ series-winning overtime goal because why not keep reliving the moment?

Rounds of applause and hoots of relief inside the Toronto Maple Leafs’ dressing room, as they poetically celebrate in the deep corridors of the home of what was the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions.

Outside the visitors’ room doors, “Go! Leafs! Go!” chants echo over chewed-up ice from the few Toronto supporters who decided to save money by attending a road game instead of a home one: flying down to Tampa, buying tickets and hotel nights to bear witness to something unseen in 19 years.

Two thousand, one hundred fifty kilometres north, Yonge Street morphs into an instant street party and the TTC halts so the celebration can jam away in spontaneous Saturday night rush hour.

“A lot of high fives. A lot of screaming. Just a great feeling. It’s tough to describe the feeling of winning a series,” says Auston Matthews, a 25-year-old Arizonan bearing Toronto’s 66-year-old hopes. 

“I’ve been here seven years. Mitchy. Willy. Mo’s been here 10. Johnny five. Just to get over that hump, it’s huge mentally for us. Just to get that monkey off the back. We don’t want to look back now. We just want to keep putting our foot on the gas.”

Downtown Tampa was on tornado watch heading into the Maple Leafs’ 2-1 overtime stunner, but it was the visiting hockey team that tore through Amalie Arena, coming out on the fun side of three overtime games on enemy ice — a feat never accomplished by any road team in a single playoff series. 

The phrases “THEY DID IT” and “THE CURSE IS BROKEN” trended across Canada in all caps deep into the night from a loyal but scarred followship that was warned there would be pain. But, after 11 consecutive whiffed swings to eliminate a playoff opponent, had began wondering if that is all there would be.

Sure, when their Maple Leafs went up on the Bolts 3-1 in the series, they were cautiously optimistic. That’s the only kind of optimism they make in Ontario.

“It’s been a long time coming. A long time coming for a lot of players in our room. A long time coming for myself. And a longer time coming for Leafs Nation,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe, minutes after getting more than respect from the handshake line. 

“So, it’s a big night.”

A big night for series-clincher Tavares, who came home to live out a childhood dream yet must have wondered on occasion if he’d signed up for an $77-million nightmare.

“Fitting, for sure,” Matthews said. “I don’t care who scores it. It don’t matter. But it’s just a great play by him and a pretty fortunate bounce. But we’ll take that one.”

Tavares accepted a pass from his billet Matthew Knies, spun around the Lightning net and fired a puck that clicked off Tampa defender Darren Raddysh’s skate and leaked past Andrei Vasilevskiy.

A big night for Knies, the kid who was on the ice for all three of the Leafs’ OT winners at Amalie — but was not on this same ice three Saturdays ago, when his University of Minnesota club lost the NCAA championship in overtime.

A big night for Keefe, who would surely have been fired had his players loosened their grip on another 3-1 Round 1 stranglehold. 

When Tavares scored, the coach felt a jolt of jubilation. Then he blacked out.  

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“Seeing that puck find its way in the net, it’s such an incredible moment. Playoff hockey is incredible. It was so loud in the building, I don’t know if I was able to speak a word without screaming it as loud as I could so the players could hear me. The intensity and the emotion in the building tonight from start to finish was incredible. And to finish the game in overtime…” Keefe said. 

He thought back to 2021’s Game 6 OT loss to Montreal and 2022’s Game 6 OT loss here in Tampa. No way they’d blow this one too?

“We’ve been talking about it feeling different with our team. But feeling different doesn’t help us. It has to be different,” Keefe said.

Keefe doesn’t remember the exact words he used when addressing his players in the euphoria of victory, but he remembers the heart of his message:

“They’ve been through a lot of shit to get here, to get to this spot. For them to get this feeling tonight, they deserve it,” Keefe said. “It’s about time a bounce went our way.

“Every guy gave us everything they had here in this series.”

A big night for loyal Kyle Dubas, who has quintupled down on his questioned core, to the point of jeopardizing his employment, and now gets a peek at Round 2.

Asked why this is the version of the Maple to do what past incarnations failed to do, Keefe pointed to the fiery figure standing to Jason Spezza’s right in the press box.

Dubas, Keefe reminded, spent the summer signing Mark Giordano, Calle Järnkrok and Ilya Samsonov to bargain deals. Then he traded up a storm, filling out Toronto’s depth with character role players Ryan O’Reilly, Luke Schenn, Jake McCabe, and Noel Acciairi at the trade deadline.

“He, probably more than anybody, deserved to have this result, because he’s believed in the group, yet he’s made adjustments and changes along the way,” Keefe said.

“It’s a huge step for our team, but from Day 1 of the season, we haven’t talked about winning the first round. We’re trying to win the Stanley Cup.”

After the noise came the quiet.

Boyhood friends–slash–grownup rivals Tavares and Steven Stamkos crossed paths in a handshake queue of inversed emotion. Stamkos told the other captain: “Keep going.”

Showered and quenched, O’Reilly was walking out of the arena, hair wet and suit crisp. He spotted frenemy Pat Maroon waiting. The two bearded champions embraced.

O’Reilly’s gap-toothed smiler was wider, though.

Rielly — the longest-tenured, longest-tortured Maple Leaf — considered a moment he’s been waiting 10 years to savour and quickly flipped his attention to the next one.

“You want more. You want to keep growing. You want to keep building. You want to keep pushing for more,” Rielly said.

“We’re not done.”

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Fox’s Fast 5

• In response to Game 5’s loss at home, Keefe mixed all four forward lines, scratched three series staples (Zach Aston-Reese, Sam Lafferty, and Justin Holl), and dressed seven defencemen.

Michael Bunting had jump coming off his four-game break. Timothy Liljegren had not played in 16 days, Erik Gustafsson 21.

Keefe admitted there were times he wished he had 12 forwards, but his refreshed lineup allowed for more star-loaded shifts.

“It paid off for us,” Keefe says of his tweaks. “Making it a little more difficult and unpredictable for the opposition, who had last change.”

• The Maple Leafs are now 0 for their last 22 power-play opportunities when attempting to clinch a playoff series. No matter. They got it done at even strength.

• Ilya Samsonov outduels countryman Andrei Vasilevskiy, whom he labels “the best goalie in the world,” and wins his first playoff series. 

He is asked for his feelings in the aftermath of the handshakes.

“I feel tired right now,” he replies.

• By wrapping up their half of the bracket first, Toronto gets an extra day’s rest over its next opponent, Boston or Florida. 

The Leafs will either start on the road against the Bruins or at home against the Panthers next week.

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• Edge didn’t just donate a championship belt to the Maple Leafs, he called Game 6:

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