The Toronto Maple Leafs won their first NHL playoff series in 19 years

TORONTO — The square outside the empty NHL arena, home of the Maple Leafs, bounced like a mosh pit on a wet, chilly Saturday night — even for a Canadian spring.

Tampa, Fla., center John Tavares scored in overtime against the Lightning. Kyle Dubas, the team’s general manager, has long been critical of his record-breaking roster, exploding under his feet in his arena box and punching the air like a prize fighter. Behind the bench, coach Sheldon Keefe was mobbed by his assistants, and players threw down their sticks, climbed the boards and swarmed their teammates on the ice.

Back in Toronto, car horns blared in this longtime playoff wasteland, near and far from the outdoor crowd watching the game on a giant screen. Ah-oh! Ah-oh! Ah-oh!

The gang, some members scream, some cry, Some burst firecrackers, Some are suddenly shirtless, pulsating like a nightclub crowd. A few theatergoers climbed lampposts, hanging on with one hand and filming scenes with the other.

It was thrilling madness for a city that has only had the chance to go hard in the game a handful of times this century: when Sidney Crosby scored the winning goal for Canada in the championship match against the United States at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics; Jose Bautista’s three-run shot (and the subsequent pad flip ‘Around the World Heard) helped the Blue Jays win the American League Division Series in 2015; And in 2019 when the Raptors won the NBA Finals. Ah-oh! Ah-oh! Ah-oh!

The Leafs, who last won the Stanley Cup in 1967, have not won a playoff round since 2004.

“Hard to believe!” Taunted Darryl Sitler, the popular Leafs captain who played 12 seasons in Toronto in the 1970s and early ’80s and still holds the NHL record. Scored most points in a regular season game with 10.

Leafs right wing Mitch Marner of suburban Toronto called it a “relief.” Star American center Auston Matthews called it “beautifully exciting” and “a small step in a long journey”.

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After Beat Ottawa in 2004 The Leafs missed the playoffs the following season, losing to Philadelphia in the second round. And then missed them again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again. In 2013, they ended their drought, but remained Stunned by the Bruins In a Game 7 slump, Torontonians are still sniffling. There were three more seasons that missed the postseason.

“When we lost our first game at home, everybody thought, ‘Oh here we go again,'” Sidler said of this year’s series-opening loss to Tampa Bay. “But we get that second win and then go to Tampa and get some breaks, unlike other years, where other teams get breaks and we collapse. Boston has destroyed our hopes and chances the last few years.

He explained that The crowd chanted in Maple Leaf Square: “We want Florida! We want Florida!”

When the Leafs first drafted Matthews in 2016, they began surrounding him with millions of dollars in talent — mainly Marnerfourth overall pick in 2015; TavaresA free agent signing in 2018; and right-wing William NylanderThe team’s 2014 first-round pick.

However, good regular seasons ended in playoff disappointment. The NHL’s young glamor team leaves Toronto in a spiritual slump each spring. But Dubas left the center intact, added and subtracted in goal and on the edges, and locked down the long-serving Leaf, an accomplished defender. Morgan RiellyWith an eight-year contract extension in 2021.

“The administration believed in them and stuck with these guys,” Sidler said. “We believe in them. They’re going to take us to where we think this hockey club can go.

Swedish defenseman and former Leafs star Borge Salming on Nov. 11, a clear attraction attached to the Leafs’ season. He was honored before the annual Hockey Hall of Fame game.

Salming, who suffers from late-stage amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, had moved from Sweden to Toronto despite being unable to speak, walk and need a feeding tube. Along with retired Swedish center Sitler and Mats Sundin, the three men who defined the Leafs’ long-suffering past looked to its present and future. The past, present and future were one piece as Sidler held Salming’s right arm in the air to acknowledge the crowd as they left the ice.

“I saw a stoic look on every player’s face,” Sitler said. “I was very emotional because I thought a long time ago that it was Borge and I, young guys, who love what we do, playing for the Leafs in a packed house.”

Chalming and Sidler came closest to a Stanley Cup in 1978, when the Leafs lost in the conference finals. He couldn’t remember the number of games against each team and what they were like all year: seven rough games against the Islanders, then four straight losses to the Montreal Canadiens.

When the Leafs had another successful run in 1993–94, advancing to the conference finals for the second straight season, Sidler served in the front office.

“The city burned,” he said. “People honking their horns up and down Yonge Street, flags flying.” He added, “It’s been so long, most of the fans are not alive today when they won the trophy back in 67. It’s been so long, you know.

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Toronto knows.

“I enjoyed the Raptors winning in the city,” he said. “If the Leafs, it’s a few notches up on the scale. Everyone’s waiting for that.”

After an embarrassing 7-3 loss in Game 1 against the Lightning, the Leafs have won three straight, including two in overtime on the road. In Game 4, Toronto trailed 4-1, then scored three third-period goals in just over six minutes to win in overtime. It’s been a season of heroics on the ice for the Leafs, at least in one city for generations beyond. ready.

“Being a Maple Leaf is special,” said Tavares, who was born in a suburb of Toronto and played for the Islanders, signing a $77 million contract with his childhood favorite in 2018. “You know what that means to people, especially with some disappointments.

In November, Sidler wept beside Salming, not for hockey, but for the cruelty of ALS. Globe and Mail columnist Cathal Kelly wrote that night It was Toronto’s own Lou Gehrig moment, “the best picture of the last 20 years of Leafs history.”

Salming died a few weeks later at home in Sweden.

Gehrig died in June 1941, four months after the Yankees won the World Series, and nobody said it out loud. The Leafs have a long way to go, but in this franchise, icons hang tough in this city.

Sitler remembers Leafs players shaking Salming’s hand and hugging him. “There’s not a dry eye in the place,” he said. “It’s hard to even write a script like that, it just has to happen.”

Now, against Boston or Florida, the Leafs will try to create an ending to that unfinished script, one Chalming and Sidler couldn’t write themselves.

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