April 20, 2004, was the last time the Toronto Maple Leafs found their way out of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. On April 29, 2023, it was a near-perfect ending to a 19-year drought. The Maple Leafs played a defensively-sound game that limited the Tampa Bay Lightning to only one goal in a series-clinching game; which is something that the team has struggled with since the Auston Matthews‘ era started in 2016. The game was tied 1-1 heading into overtime (OT) for the third time in the series.
The Maple Leafs had been dominant in the OT periods in the series, which left Leafs Nation feeling very optimistic that they would come out on top. Could you imagine, growing up as a Maple Leafs fan dreaming about a chance to score an OT goal to win a series or the Stanley Cup?
Well, let’s welcome Maple Leafs captain John Tavares to the conversation as he was the OT hero for his hometown team.
Tavares’ History of Breaking Team Droughts
As mentioned, Tavares ended the Maple Leafs’ 19-year second-round drought against the Lightning. The feeling of being able to step up and take care of the game to win it for his childhood team is almost like a storybook ending. However, this isn’t the first time that he has ended an NHL team’s playoff series win drought. On April 24, 2016, Tavares ended the New York Islanders’ 23-year-old playoff series winless streak. He was the hero in that game, too, which meant a lot because he was drafted to be their star forward for years to come.
Big players thrive in big moments, and that is exactly what Tavares was able to do to end both teams’ playoff series droughts. He can be a ghost at times but then shows up when it matters and that is what the Maple Leafs needed to have happen to avoid yet another Game 7.
Tavares’ Struggles Throughout His Time in Toronto
When Tavares left the Islanders, the fan base felt empty and betrayed. He tested the open market to explore his options and ultimately chose to sign with his childhood team; the Maple Leafs. As a result, Islanders fans were very angry, and they heckled Tavares every chance they got when he returned to New York.
Tavares has endured a lot of heckling and hate since joining the Maple Leafs but has always managed to stay professional with the media when talking about his former team. This makes his series-clinching goal for Toronto an even bigger moment for him and his family.
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If we flashback to the 2021 NHL Playoffs, the Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens squared off in an Original Six series. Early in Game 1, Tavares was involved in a scary incident with Corey Perry which left him helpless on the ice. He was ruled out for the duration of the postseason, leaving the Maple Leafs with a major hole in their lineup. The Canadiens would go on to win the series, coming back from a 3-1 deficit and stunning Toronto. This left members of Leafs Nation and the media asking questions about the $77 million contract that the team gave to him, and curious about his worth as a hockey player and if he was past his prime. Well, not only does his regular season stats disprove that, his clutch goal in the first round is very fitting to silence the haters.
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Tavares has endured a ton since becoming a member of the Maple Leafs, but it is all worth it if he and the rest of the core can find success in the playoffs. This is a team that was supposed to contend for Cups the last four years but has fallen short. Whether that be a psychological issue or just being outplayed and outcoached, the team has had many failures. However, this season is not the same, they did it, and they made it to the second round.
Now that the Boston Bruins have been upset by the Florida Panthers, the second-round matchup is set. The Maple Leafs and the Panthers, which has Toronto as the early favourite. Many people have thought that if they could just break through to the second round they could go on a run to the Cup Final. Well, this could be the year that happens, and potentially set up an all-Canadian Stanley Cup Final against the Edmonton Oilers.