Maple Leafs’ Core 5 Finally Come Alive During Their Playoff Run

The Toronto Maple Leafs recently ended a 19-year playoff series drought, which started on April 20, 2004, till the captain John Tavares ended that streak on April 29, 2023. During the team’s first-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, it wasn’t just the captain that came alive when the team needed it. It was the core five, including the aforementioned Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Morgan Rielly.

All five of these players came alive when the puck dropped in Game 2, and finally, for the first time in the existence of that core, combined for 42 points between the five of them. Toronto came to win and they did just that. They advanced to the second round for the first time since 2004 and are facing yet another team from the Sunshine State; the Florida Panthers.

Mo, Mo, Morgan Reilly

If you were to tell a member of Leafs Nation that Rielly would have had the first-round series that he did, they most likely would have called you a liar. To be frank, his regular season was ugly. At times he looked lost and almost as if the contract extension was a waste. But, let’s not forget that he is the man on the back end, he is the one that the power play runs through, he has a huge impact on the room and his teammates love him. Now, that doesn’t mean that his contract could have been a “waste” but that shows the type of teammate and person that he is and why general manager (GM) Kyle Dubas didn’t shy away from locking him up.

Morgan Rielly Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

We all know that Toronto is a very difficult city to play in because of the scrutiny that comes with it. Rielly was a victim of that this year but has elevated his game to a level that we haven’t seen since 2019 when he had the best offensive season of his career, scoring 72 points. Through six games against the Lightning, he had three goals and five assists, and a few of those were very important points. He scored the game-winner in overtime (OT) in Game 3, to give the Maple Leafs the lead in the series.

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In Game 4, he sent a puck on the net and beat Andrei Vasilevskiy for the second time in two games, this goal was the game-tying goal in a game that Toronto won in OT to take a 3-1 lead in the series. Rielly has quickly silenced the haters that were running his name through the mud all season, with an outstanding first-round series. The expectation is he will continue riding the wave and help lead his squad to the Stanley Cup Final because the Maple Leafs are simply a better team with Rielly on his game.

Johnny Toronto

Tavares scored the most meaningful goal of his entire career on April 29, 2023, to send his childhood team to the second round. It was a goal that no fan will ever forget. It could be the Maple Leafs’ version of the Toronto Blue Jays’ Jose Bautista bat-flip moment that left the entire city in shock. This goal broke a drought that is longer than a portion of the team’s fans have been alive. It left Maple Leafs fans partying in the streets all night, while other fan bases reminded them “It’s only the first round”.

Related: Tavares’ Series-Clinching Goal Makes Him a Hometown Hero

Regardless of what other fan bases say, it was an enormous moment for so many fans of the team to finally have the weight lifted off of the player’s shoulders. Throughout the series, Tavares had times when he was non-existent and had no impact on the games. However, when he did find another level, he was able to produce, which included his first-ever playoff hat trick in Game 2. He ended Round 1 with four goals and three assists for seven points.

Willy Styles

Nylander has been one of the best playoff performers in recent years for the Maple Leafs, and that continued this year. Of course, there are the typical complaints about his play in the defensive end and his lack of physicality. With that said, yes, it is the playoffs, but that’s not his game. He is an incredibly talented offensive-minded winger, who lacks all the components of a 200-foot game. It has been seven years since he joined the team, so that shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. So those who wish he was more like David Pastrnak, should let that go because he never will, but he will always be that player who can score 30-plus goals and show up in the playoffs.

William Nylander Toronto Maple Leafs
William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

His play in the first round was what was expected of him, he scored a few big goals to help the team and contributed in the offensive zone with five assists. He also drew the tripping penalty in Game 5, which led to the Alex Kerfoot goal to give Toronto a commanding 3-1 series lead. Nylander is the type of player that rides the hot streaks and since he found the back of the net a few times against Tampa, he could be very dangerous against the Panthers in Round 2.

Mitch ‘The Magician’ Marner

Are there truly any words to describe Marner? He was the Maple Leafs MVP in the regular season, and his point production has carried over to the postseason. He has two goals and 11 assists for 13 points, which is currently fourth in the playoff league leaders. Marner is the player that head coach Sheldon Keefe counts on to energize the other lines. He has been seen on both Matthews and Tavares’ lines, as well as the “Ontario Line” with Tavares and Ryan O’Reilly. He also tends to carry the play for the team, all the power play setups go through him at the top of the zone and then he dishes it from there.

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Tampa has that in Nikita Kucherov, a player who leads the way in almost all the important moments for the team. Marner truly does it all though, he kills penalties, he double shifts on both top lines when needed and this season he even played on the blue line to help the team’s chances of scoring. He is the glue that holds the team together. When they need to elevate a centerman’s play, they put Marner on his line and they manage to find success. If Toronto can advance to the Final this year, it wouldn’t be surprising if he was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner.


Matthews has been unreal this postseason for the Maple Leafs. He has appeared to exorcise the demons of the past and has finally shown the NHL whose team this is. He truly came alive during Game 5 in Tampa Bay, when Toronto was down 4-1 with ten minutes left in the third. He was set up perfectly by Marner after a slick pass from Nylander, and he made no mistake putting it past Andrei Vasilevskiy. Later, he scored on a great deflection in the slot off a point shot that put his team back within one of the Lightning. The Maple Leafs would go on to tie and win that game in OT, giving them a 3-1 series lead. In Game 6, Matthews opened the scoring with a sweet snipe past Vasilevskiy; Toronto would later go on to win that game in OT as well.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Without Matthews’ play, the Maple Leafs wouldn’t have closed out the Lightning in six games, but instead could have been battling it out in a Game 7, and potentially sent home in the first round. That didn’t happen though, and he is a big reason for that. Hockey is a team sport but sometimes you need a guy to step up and have a game or series of his life and that is what he had. So far, he has five goals and four assists for nine total points but will look to be just as hungry against the Panthers in the second round. He, like Marner, will get strong consideration for the Conn Smythe Trophy if the Maple Leafs can make it to the Stanley Cup Final and win it.

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The road hasn’t been easy, it has been hard for everyone involved, including the fan base. However, we are here now and they have gotten the oversized monkey off of their backs. Some say it isn’t about the destination, but the journey that got you there. Well, in this case, that is 100 percent true. The Maple Leafs’ journey in the postseason, even if it ends in the second round, will be one that Leafs Nation will never forget. That is due to the core five stepping up and finally coming alive during the playoffs.