Lightning are the unlucky victims as Maple Leafs end playoff drought

Toronto-area native John Tavares scores the overtime goal that ends nearly two decades of Leafs playoff misery.
Toronto’s John Tavares (91) has plenty to celebrate Saturday night: this second-period goal by Auston Matthews, then his own in overtime.
Toronto’s John Tavares (91) has plenty to celebrate Saturday night: this second-period goal by Auston Matthews, then his own in overtime. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published April 30, 2023|Updated April 30, 2023

TAMPA — It had to be John Tavares.

He was the little boy growing up outside Toronto who slept in Maple Leafs sheets, who returned as a free agent in 2018 determined to end the franchise’s postseason drought. Saturday night, the Maple Leafs’ captain snapped a shot through traffic that ricocheted off a skate, past Andrei Vasilevskiy and into the net.

Just 4:36 into overtime, Tavares ended the Leafs’ curse and at the same time the Lightning’s magical run. His goal gave Toronto a 2-1 win in Game 6 at Amalie Arena and clinched the best-of-seven series.

For the first time in 19 years, the Maple Leafs will be advancing in the playoffs. And for the first time in four seasons, the Lightning will not be going to the Stanley Cup Final.

“At some point you’re not gonna get the break; it’s just the way it is,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “... For a team and organization that has really struggled in the playoffs, (Toronto) at some point, they were gonna get a break. It just sucks it was a series against us.”

The Maple Leafs won a playoff series for the first time since the 2004 opening round, when they beat the Ottawa Senators. They snapped a slide of losses in eight straight playoff series.

Tavares became the first Maple Leafs player with a series-clinching goal since Joe Nieuwendyk in Game 7 of the 2004 opening round. Tavares scored the 10th series-clinching overtime goal in franchise history and first since Garry Valk in Game 6 of the 1999 conference semifinals.

None of that really mattered to Tavares. Ending the streak was all that did.

“Obviously, growing up, you know, in the (Greater Toronto area), you get a sense of the history and tradition and what it means to the city, to the people and how big and how incredible Leafs nation is, so I feel really fortunate obviously to be here competing for the club and obviously to get a big one (Saturday) is really nice,” he said. “Especially with some of the disappointments we’ve had.”

Tavares had to watch from afar as his childhood friend, Steven Stamkos, went to the Stanley Cup Final three straight seasons and won two. The last time the Maple Leafs even made a Cup final was 1967.

Last year, Stamkos and the Lightning rallied to beat Tavares and the Leafs in seven games in the same round.

This time, it was Stamkos who was going home early disappointed.

“It’s a tough moment, because the run we’ve been on the last three years has been amazing, and anytime you don’t get to that level, it feels like a failure,” Stamkos said. “It’s disappointing, because of the season and the group that we have and the guys in here, but again, that’s a really good hockey team over there. They found a way to win four games, so they deserve credit.”

Toronto had to do it the hard way.

The Maple Leafs became the first team in playoff history with three overtime wins on the road in a series. Now, they move on to face the winner of the Florida-Boston series.

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“We never talked about winning a series,” Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe said. “We talked about winning a Stanley Cup. There’s more hockey to be played.”

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