It feels so good to finally see the Leafs do the bare minimum in the playoffs

Photo credit:© Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Michael Mazzei
11 months ago
19 years. 11 consecutive losses in elimination games.
All of the pain and misery over the past two decades finally became a thing of the past when John Tavares slayed the dragon and propelled the Leafs into the second round for the first time since 2004.
Saying that this moment was a long time coming for a fan base that had been used to nothing but heartbreak in the playoffs would be a massive understatement. Quite frankly, the city deserved to have a chance to celebrate progress in the postseason by seeing their team do the bare minimum and play more than seven games in the spring.
The Leafs finally exorcising one of their playoff demons reminds me of how I felt during their last three first-round exits. In 2020, I was ready for them to move on from Frederik Andersen because he let them down in the bubble. A year later, my anger was directed at the team for blowing a prime opportunity to go deep potentially and seeking a significant shakeup once the collapse was complete. Just last season, I felt dissatisfied because while they made progress it was still not enough.
The vast majority of the losses since 2017 saw the Leafs be the better team but would find creative ways to come up short when the stars shined the brightest. If it wasn’t a backbreaking playoff goal against that kept the fans up at night, then it was probably a missed penalty, a phantom call against, losing an important player to an injury, or straight up bad luck which kept this city feeling miserable.
That’s not taking into account all of the times they embarrassed themselves for all the world to see in the regular season like losing to a Zamboni driver, blowing a 5-1 lead to the Senators, or losing 9-2. All of the questionable roster decisions over the years that remain rent free in the minds of many also contributed to the misery like moving on from Nazem Kadri and never properly replacing him or not trying to protect Jared McCann in the expansion draft. And of course, there were the regular season collapses like the 18-wheeler, the 2-12 stretch to end 2014, and the entire 2014-15 season.
This is why for the past three years or so, Leafs fans had a hard time enjoying the regular season because of the impending doom that was the postseason and the ultimate question of whether or not they could get over the hump.
For one shining moment, all of the heartbreaks and shortcomings were just a memory. It’s understandable why the crowd at Maple Leafs Square went wild after Tavares ended the series.
Some may say that the reaction was too much as it was only for a first-round series win and they still haven’t overcome the 56-year drought for a certain trophy. While it is true that this is just one series win and the job is far from over, who can blame the fans for feeling this excited about getting the sense of relief they have longed for?
This moment was possible because the Leafs’ biggest stars stepped up in the big moments, there was quality depth to back them up, and Ilya Samsonov made the saves when his team needed them.
Mitch Marner currently sits second in the playoffs in points, Auston Matthews’ five goals have him tied for second in that category, William Nylander has made his presence felt offensively, and Tavares laid down the dagger to give his childhood team a ticket to the next round. Morgan Rielly showed why he is a playoff performer, Matthew Knies did not look out of place, and both Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari showed why the Leafs gave up quite a haul to get them both. The pairing of TJ Brodie and Jake McCabe was steller at both ends, Luke Schenn played his best hockey as a Leaf and Alex Kerfoot scored an OT winner.
It was not pretty by any means, as the pairing of Mark Giordano and Justin Holl struggled mightily defensively and the fourth line was a nonfactor in all six games, but all that matters is that they won. And it’s fitting that the series where the Leafs finally advanced past the first round was one where they were mostly outplayed from Game 3 onward and found a way to win when it mattered.
As I mentioned earlier, the Leafs entered last night’s contest on an 11-game losing streak in games where they had a chance to advance. I can vividly remember how all 11 of them went and each of them was more heartbreaking than the last. One thing that all of them had in common is that the Leafs made it too easy for their opponent to find some light when Toronto had a prime opportunity to deal the decisive blow.
Everyone in hockey says that the fourth win is always the hardest and the Leafs kept struggling at the final boss for the past seven years with this core. Seeing them finally get the monkey off their back and doing it against arguably the greatest team of the salary cap era makes it extra special.
By the end of tonight, we will find out whether the Leafs will be heading to Boston or hosting Florida for Game 1 of the second round. No matter who their opponent ends up being, the Leafs can finally breathe a sigh of relief knowing that they overcame themselves and have what it takes to close out a series. A more confident Toronto team with a heavy weight lifted from their shoulders should terrify the rest of the league.
The first mountain has finally been climbed and all that is left for this team to permanently exorcise their demons is to win a Game 7, reach the Finals, and clinch the Stanley Cup for the first time in nearly six decades. Regardless of how much longer this run goes, it feels amazing to finally see the Leafs do the bare minimum in the playoffs and end some tired narratives once and for all.

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