Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Defining Moments & Round 1 Heroes

Here’s some great news Toronto Maple Leafs’ fans haven’t heard in a while. The Maple Leafs have advanced to the Eastern Conference Semifinals. That, as fans of the team know too well, hasn’t happened since 2004. 

In fact, Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe was downright giddy when he spoke after the game. And, for at least a moment, he should be. His team had finally advanced deeper into the NHL playoffs after captain John Tavares scored 4:35 into overtime. That goal gave the Maple Leafs a 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. For the first time in almost 20 years, the team was moving on.

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs Andrei Vasilevskiy Tampa Bay Lightning
John Tavares celebrates a goal as Andrei Vasilevskiy looks on (Photo by Gavin Napier/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Keefe’s words captured the moment: “It’s been a long road for a lot of our guys. … They’ve been through a lot, been questioned a lot. Today is a significant step, but we’re not going to celebrate anything beyond. There’s a lot of work ahead. … I feel like the best is yet to come.”

Two words – happy and hopeful – seem to sum up his feelings. Nice, by the way, that he thought about his players first.

In this edition of Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll share some news from the deciding game of the team’s first-round series win against Tampa Bay. 

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Although several players contributed to the win, I’m going to look at the team’s first two stars of the series. I’ll also look at how the series produced an emerging star.

First-Round Series Hero #1: Ilya Samsonov – the Team’s Best Player

For my money, Ilya Samsonov was clearly the team’s first star of the series. The Maple Leafs would not have come close to hanging in Game 6 without him better than matching save-for-save with Andrei Vasilevskiy. And, Vasilevskiy is considered the best goalie on the planet right now by many.

When Samsonov signed with the Maple Leafs in the offseason after the Washington Capitals let him go, the tandem of him and Matt Murray was seen as the biggest question mark of the team’s season. Thus far, he’s answered any questions. In this series, he’s been nothing short of amazing. 

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Sure, many will point at his horrible Game 1. But for my money, his bounce-back in Game 2 after being shelled in Game 1 was the defining moment of the series for the Maple Leafs. Samsonov called it like it was, saying he played like s**t and vowed to do better. Then, he went out and did just that. This youngster has substance. 

Samsonov seemed to grow more confident as the series went on. In Game 6, he made 31 saves and allowed only one goal. The Leafs won the game 2-1 in overtime, clinching the Round 1 series four games to two. With this win, Samsonov became the first Maple Leafs’ goalie to carry his team to a playoff series win since 2004.

There’s more to write about this young goalie, but for the moment let me leave it at this. He looks like the real deal.

First-Round Series Hero #2: Auston Matthews Carried His Team

The defining moment in this series for Auston Matthews was the come-from-behind Game 4 win. There, he simply took over the game. 

With that epic comeback win, the Maple Leafs shocked the Lightning in what (for Leafs Nation) was an absolutely thrilling game of hockey. Despite being down 4-1 at the end of the second period, the team mounted an incredible surge of energy. They chipped away at the lead and ultimately tied the game by the end of regulation. Alex Kerfoot won it in overtime with a tipped shot from the point.

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

Matthews put the team on his back and carried them to within one goal. He scored two crucial goals and became the standout scorer of the series. His heroics spurred the team from an incredible 4-1 third-period hole that seemed almost impossible given the Lightning’s strong performance in the first two periods. 

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In Game 6, Matthews scored the game’s first goal in the second period. It was his fifth of the postseason – a one-timer from the top of the right circle. He had points in all six games this postseason and now heads into Round 2 riding a four-game, five-goal streak.

First-Round Series Emerging Hero #3: Matthew Knies Looks Like the Real Deal

In an odd way, perhaps the most fortuitous bad play of the series was Michael Bunting’s egregious penalty that brought him a three-game seat in the press box. Without that penalty and corresponding punishment, it could be that Matthew Knies would have spent the series in street clothes. 

Instead, Knies jumped into Game 2 and passed his NHL playoff audition with flying colors. Mistakes? Yes. Recovery? Certainly. But his learning curve is high and he seemed unfazed by the spotlight. He was on the ice for all three of the Maple Leafs’ game-winning overtime goals. That says something.

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)

By the end of the series, Knies showed his skills with the puck and his head for the game. He has fit right into the Maple Leafs’ lineup; and, I’m guessing he isn’t coming out any time soon.

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In Game 6, Knies assisted on the game-winning goal in overtime, which helped the Maple Leafs clinch the series. He played a crucial role in setting up the series-clinching goal. He controlled the puck behind the net before passing it to Tavares, who eventually circled around the top, spun around, and put the shot at the net. Lucky bounce off a skate and into the net. End of the game and the series.

In short, Knies has shown impressive skills and has been an asset to the Maple Leafs’ top-six players. 

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

Tonight, the Maple Leafs will likely be watching the game in Boston where the Bruins and the Florida Panthers will fight it out for the chance to see who meets the Blue and White in Round 2.

Part of me wants the Bruins to win. If the Maple Leafs are going to go further this season, why not go through the best in the NHL? That said, the logical part of me would like the home-ice advantage once again. We’ll see.

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