Maple Leafs Game 1 Loss Was the Wake-Up Call They Needed

The Toronto Maple Leafs finally did it! After years of rough defeats, they exorcised their playoff demons and advanced to the second round. After losing Game 5 on home ice they stepped up against the Tampa Bay Lightning to win Game 6 in overtime to win their first series since 2004.

Alex Kerfoot Matthew Knies Toronto Maple Leafs
Alexander Kerfoot of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates the game-winning goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning during overtime in Game 4 of the First Round of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs (Photo by Mike Carlson/NHLI via Getty Images)

This comes after years of difficult, brutal defeats and series collapses that made it easy to think that the Maple Leafs were a cursed franchise doomed to never win again. In the Auston Matthews era, the list of series defeats includes six consecutive first round exits.

  • 2017 – The Washington Capitals defeated them in a six-game series where they lost the last three games all by one goal.
  • 2018 and 2019 – The Boston Bruins defeated them in back-to-back years in seven games.
  • 2020 – In the Qualifying Round, the Columbus Blue Jackets, who only won one playoff series in their franchise history won the round in five games and took the final game with a 3-0 shutout victory.
  • 2021 – After winning the North Division they faced the Montreal Canadiens, their historic rivals who were the final team to clinch a playoff spot in the division. They blew a 3-1 series lead with overtime losses in Game 5 and Game 6 and only scored one goal in the final two minutes of the 3-1 Game 7 loss.
  • 2022 – In the first 50-win season in franchise history, the Maple Leafs faced the Lightning in the first round. Despite building a 3-2 series lead, they lost Game 6 in overtime and Game 7 2-1 to lose the hard-fought series.

Related: 5 Hurdles the Maple Leafs Had to Clear to Make the 2nd Round

This year was different and the Maple Leafs finally used the rough losses, including the 7-3 Game 1 defeat, to win this series against the Lightning. The recent series victory aligns them with similar teams that went through heartbreak before experiencing playoff success. Moreover, the first round victory puts them in line to make a run for the Stanley Cup and snap the longest drought in league history.

Maple Leafs Join the List of Teams That Overcame Heartbreak

Every team that has hoisted the Stanley Cup had to deal with devastating losses or multiple rough playoff defeats. The losses more often fuel playoff runs in the subsequent years and allow them to eventually reap the rewards of their hard work.

The Lightning, who won back-to-back titles in 2020 and 2021, were swept by the Blue Jackets in the first round in 2019. That came on the heels of a historic regular season where they went 62-16-4 and the embarrassing loss helped fuel the team for the next three years as they won the Cup in consecutive seasons and reached the Final in 2022. The Colorado Avalanche, who won the Cup last year, lost a seven-game series in 2019 and 2020 and lost four consecutive games in the second round in 2021 to the Vegas Golden Knights to lose the series in six games. The St. Louis Blues suffered years, even decades of losses before winning the Cup in 2019 for the first time in franchise history.

St. Louis Blues Stanley Cup
St. Louis Blues pose for a photo with the Stanley Cup on the ice after the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on June 12, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

Going back even further, the greatest teams in NHL history had to lose in tough ways before they became great dynasties. The Edmonton Oilers lost the 1983 Stanley Cup Final before winning five titles in seven seasons while the New York Islanders suffered many playoff defeats in the 1970s before winning four consecutive titles in the 1980s. The Detroit Red Wings won back-to-back titles in 1997 and 1998 but spent the early part of the decade witnessing tough series after tough series. The New Jersey Devils lost Game 7 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Final in overtime to the New York Rangers but then won the Cup three times in nine years. Even the Canadiens had to lose in the Stanley Cup Final four times in five years in the 1950s before becoming the greatest dynasty in league history as they won an unprecedented 15 titles in 24 years.

The Maple Leafs have had no shortage of tough defeats. They have taken the punches of multiple brutal playoff losses and know what it takes to win a playoff series and the Cup. Now that the Maple Leafs have made it past the first round, they are the most battle-tested team left in the playoffs.

Why This Year Was Different

It’s interesting to think that a Game 1 loss would be the wake-up call that the Maple Leafs needed. After years of tough defeats, where they seemed to lose in every way imaginable, a 7-3 loss seems like an odd time for everything to click and fuel a strong series.

For the Maple Leafs, that loss was the tipping point specifically for their matchup against the Lightning. They entered the series as the better team and unlike last year’s matchup, they knew that the only obstacle in their way was themselves. Facing a team that looked like a more fatigued and less potent version of their former selves, they knew that if they stepped up, they could control the series and win it. The brutal Game 1 loss was a reminder that they couldn’t play down to their competition and they were determined to avoid another loss like that. The next three games reflected the Maple Leafs’ effort to avoid such a loss, especially with their performances on the road in Games 3 and 4.

In both games, they trailed in the third period and looked poised for lopsided defeats but they battled back and not only forced overtime but won both road games. Game 4 in particular showed their urge to avoid a tough loss as they trailed 4-1 with 12 minutes left in the game but scored three unanswered goals to force overtime and eventually win the game with an Alexander Kerfoot goal.

Alexander Kerfoot Toronto Maple Leafs
Alexander Kerfoot, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Likewise, after losing Game 5 on home ice, the Maple Leafs had another grim reminder that this year was different. They blew a 3-1 series lead to the Canadiens two years ago by playing down to the competition and couldn’t let it happen again, not to a Lightning team that was riddled with injuries and hanging by a thread. Playing at a high level, the Maple Leafs wouldn’t be stopped, and in Game 6, John Tavares, the star forward who returned home in 2018 to help the team win in the playoffs, scored the overtime goal.

What Comes Next For the Maple Leafs?

The Maple Leafs have all the pieces in place to go on a Cup run. Now that they got the monkey off their back they can move full steam ahead to the second round and beyond. Unlike last year’s roster which had one of the league’s best offenses but questions in the net, this year’s team is a well-rounded one and has a goaltender capable of going toe-to-toe with anyone in the league. Ilya Samsonov not only put together a great season but outdueled Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy in the first round, proving he is the type of goaltender needed to propel a team to the Cup.

Ilya Samsonov Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Samsonov, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The next step will be a tough one. The Florida Panthers ended the season with the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference but are red hot after defeating the Bruins in the first round with three consecutive wins to take the series in seven games. They proved that they can go toe-to-toe with any team in the league and will give the Maple Leafs a tough series.

That said, the Maple Leafs have never been in a better position to win their first Stanley Cup since 1967 and snap the longest title drought in NHL history. Additionally, the last series proved that the only thing stopping the Maple Leafs is themselves and if they continue to play at an elite level, there isn’t a team in the league that can stop them.