In an Oscar-worthy performance, the Leafs do the unthinkable and clinch a playoff spot one year after finishing 30th place in the NHL standings.
Oh no, not like this. Not quite half way through the third period of the Leafs‘ most important game of the season, Jake Guentzel floats a puck towards the Leafs net, only to have it deflect twice and bounce through the legs of Curtis McElhinney.
In a game that had more drama than the final moments of this year’s Academy Awards, the Leafs had outshot and outplayed an undermanned Pittsburgh squad, but found themselves trailing 3-2. Just for fun, let’s rewind for a moment.
Six minutes into the game Phil Kessel scored. This was inevitable, and it wasn’t fun. Let’s move on.
Apparently James van Riemsdyk circa 2013 Playoffs showed up for this game, and only 29 seconds after Kessel’s goal he made an inconceivable pass reception and fired a bullet over the glove hand of Marc-Andre Fleury. What an enormous response from a desperate Leafs team, who easily could have curled up and sulked their way through the rest of this game.
Unfortunately, not even five minutes into period two, things take a turn for the worst. Frederik Andersen gets blind-sided, and as if this game needed more drama, in comes McElhinny. The Leafs took advantage of the subsequent power play, and took their first lead of the game at 2-1.
Just as Leafs fans are settling in to enjoy a lead, Nikita Zaitsev flips a puck over the glass from the defensive zone and Sidney Crosby takes advantage on the power play, tying the game at two. Is there a more frustrating penalty than delay of game? I digress.
As period three gets underway, Guenzel flies down the wing and ping-pongs a goal past McElhinny, and things begin to look awfully bleak. As Leafs fans, we’ve witnessed our fair share of heartbreak, but losing this game like that, that would be the definition of pain Mike Babcock promised was coming many months ago.
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Nope. Not this team. All year long this team of teenagers and weary soldiers of 18-wheelers past found a way to get the job done, and Saturday was no different.
Insert Kasperi Kapanen, who had played seven games with the Leafs this year, and was pointless coming into Saturday night’s game. For a scorer such as Kapanen that had to be frustrating, even though he has been playing in a fourth line role alongside Brian Boyle and Matt Martin.
On Saturday he scored the biggest goal (to that point) of the Leafs’ season, tying the game yet again with five and a half minutes to go. That goal must have felt fantastic for Kapanen, having been given up on and traded away by the Penguins in the Kessel trade.
Leafs fans everywhere quickly began adding up the points to see where an overtime/shootout loss would leave them in the grand scheme of things. To their dismay, one point would not do. Toronto needed two points to clinch, and hometown boy Connor Brown was about to make sure that long-suffering Leafs fans suffered no more.
Brown has been a Leafs fan his entire life. He grew up watching 18-wheelers fly off cliffs and 4-1 leads evaporate into thin air. He was having none of that. With under three minutes to play Brown got his stick on a Jake Gardiner point shot, deflecting it high over Fleury’s glove to give the Leafs the 4-3 lead. Be still my beating heart.
Now came the biggest test of the year. Could these Leafs hold on to the one-goal lead, something they’ve notoriously had issues with this year?
“Knock knock who’s there?”
“McElhinny GET OUT OF MY FACE CROSBY!”
Okay, so that happened? Having been thrown into the fire of the most important game of the year early in the second period, McElhinny comes up with one of the saves of the season to rob Sidney Crosby and keep the score at 4-3.
Then with 3.4 seconds left to play, none other than Auston Matthews retrieves a blocked shot and carries the puck to centre, before rifling it into the empty net for his 40th goal of the year.
Sometimes sports feel scripted. This story was too good to have transpired based on pure luck and happenstance alone. In the biggest game of the year a former Leaf scores, and the rookie he was traded for eventually ties the game. The Leafs lose their number one goalie, but their back-up comes in and seals the win with a mind-boggling save on the world’s best player. The lifelong Leafs fan scores the game winner, and the eventual Calder winner seals it all with his 40th of the year.
Forget Moonlight, this game deserves the Oscar.
In what was already a successful season, this Leafs team rocketed from 30th place in the league into playoff contention and now they’ve sealed the deal. Every rookie has delivered, and many of their veterans have had career resurgences in a season which will certainly garner Babcock some Jack Adams discussion.
Yes, they’ve already accomplished so much more than anyone could have imagined at the start of the year, but why stop now? With a point tomorrow, the Leafs can set up a first round matchup with their provincial rivals, the Ottawa Senators.
If you thought Saturday’s movie was good, stay tuned for the sequel.