(Tampa) The Maple Leafs have exorcised their demons in the playoffs and will participate in the second round of the NHL playoffs.
John Tavares scored 4:36 into overtime and the Toronto club won its first series in nearly two decades with a 2-1 victory Saturday in Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Tavares stunned Andrei Vasilevskiy after he rounded the net. The puck deflected off the skate of Lightning defenseman Darren Raddysh before sliding behind the goal line.
The Maple Leafs won the series 4-2. They were eliminated in seven games by the Lightning last spring.
Auston Matthews scored in the second period for the Maple Leafs. Ilya Samsonov stopped 31 shots.
Steven Stamkos replied in the third period for the Lightning, which had made the Stanley Cup Finals in each of the previous three seasons and won top honors in 2020 and 2021. Vasilevskiy made 20 saves.
The last time the Maple Leafs reached the second round of the playoffs was in 2004, when they defeated the Ottawa Senators in seven games. There was still no salary cap in the NHL, Twitter hadn’t been launched, and Paul Martin had become Canada’s 21st prime minister just four months earlier.
Joe Nieuwendyk was the hero that night, scoring two first-period goals against Patrick Lalime. The Maple Leafs were then eliminated in six games by the Philadelphia Flyers – the first of eight straight losing streaks.
Maple Leafs fans have been waiting for 6,948 days.
They were 0-10 when given the opportunity to eliminate a team since 2018 – the year that marked the start of the Matthews-Mitch Marner era.
The Maple Leafs had squandered an early opportunity to close the books Thursday, in front of their fans.
Back in the Maple Leafs lineup after a three-game suspension and one more night in the stands, Michael Bunting came close to opening the scoring in the second period. However, he reached the crossbar on a return, after a save from Vasilevskiy at the expense of Marner.
Matthews finally gave the Maple Leafs the lead at 13:47 of the second period. He moved the ropes with a powerful one-timer after TJ Brodie intercepted a Lightning clearance at the blue line.
During a powerplay by the Lightning, Stamkos came within inches of replying, but his shot hit the post.
It was only a postponement for the captain of the Lightning. Transferred to the line of Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn, Stamkos tied the game at 4:11 of the third period. He enjoyed a generous comeback after a long throw from Rayddish.
Matthews was frustrated with Vasilevskiy moments later.
Samsonov made a key save early in overtime, bucking past Michael Eyssimont on a partial breakaway.
Tavares then played the heroes.
In the next round, the Maple Leafs will cross swords with the winner of the series between the Boston Bruins and the Florida Panthers. This series will come to an end on Sunday with the presentation of a final match in Boston.