TORONTO — The roar of the crowd brought you back to Maple Leaf Gardens.
To Doug Gilmour working his magic. To Wendel Clark leaving every ounce on the ice.
It felt like that kind of playoff night.
The sound of Scotiabank Arena after Auston Matthews’ go-ahead goal and the delirious exhale at the buzzer was a scene not felt in these parts in quite a while.
Imagine if they actually win the series.
This night didn’t start off that way. Far from it. The night began with a dud, the Leafs down 2-0 after the opening period, looking frozen on the ice and seemingly feeling every one of those first-round playoff exits on their shoulders.
Not again in a big game with this group, right?
Suddenly, playoff losses to Boston and Columbus and Montreal came into focus as the Leafs honestly looked completely lost in the opening period. It was as brutal a 20 minutes as a team could deliver to open a pivotal Game 5 against the back-to-back Stanley Cup champs from Tampa Bay.
But then came the first intermission pep talk from veteran Leafs centre Jason Spezza. Which clearly struck a chord with a Leafs dressing room looking for a lift.
“Spezz really spoke well and I think everyone as a group understood that as each game passes by, the margin for error gets smaller and smaller,’’ said Leafs captain John Tavares. “We obviously needed to find another level with where we were at, knowing there was a lot of hockey left here in the game and being at home. Let’s get back to our game and find another level to play at.
“We certainly did that.’’
Said Matthews: “Spezz kind of got everyone in the room and said some stuff. I think the main message was that it wasn’t our best period and we just got to go out there and compete and get back to our game. I thought we came back for the second with a really good purpose and started to compete harder and started to generate more O-zone time, tried to wear down their defencemen and their guys in their zone a little bit. We started to gain a little momentum.’’
What they didn’t do was lose their composure, when perhaps some people expected them to do just that based on recent playoff performances including the nightmare of Games 5-7 versus Montreal a year ago.
No, this time, the core guys stepped up and led the way.
Matthews and linemate Mitch Marner dominated on this night and capped it with the game-winner on a two-on-one. Captain Tavares opened the scoring and his patience in setting up the 2-2 goal by Morgan Rielly was a thing of beauty. William Nylander looked like a player possessed at times, and his 3-2 goal was a bullet wrist shot.
It was the kind of night you’ve been waiting for the last few years as a franchise. The core guys leading the way in a pivotal playoff game.
“I think it’s huge,’’ said Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe. “It’s everything that you’re looking for. It’s a key time, right? It’s the hardest time of year against the back-to-back champs …
“That’s what you’re looking for, key times, big game like this, you need your best people to make a difference and they certainly did that.’’
It’s games like this by top players that fans remember over time.
“Our big guys showed great patience when we got down,’’ Wendel Clark told me via text message after the game Tuesday night. “They stayed with their game. They didn’t get rattled.’’
Said fellow Leafs legend Doug Gilmour, also via text message after the game: “Top guys found a way to win. Playoffs bring the best out of you.’’
It did, on this night, bring the best out of the Leafs’ top players. Which very simply hasn’t consistently been the case during this run of five straight first-round exits.
And it goes without saying that there’s still nothing won here for the Leafs. There’s a championship team with playoff savvy in Tampa waiting to get their revenge Thursday night in Game 6 to force a final showdown.
It’s closing time. Are the Leafs up to it?
They were up 3-1 on Montreal last year. They were up 3-2 on Boston in 2019.
Closing this deal now is the next crucial step in making sure that Tuesday night was indeed one of those franchise-altering moments for a Leafs franchise so desperate to end an 18-year playoff series drought.
“When you try to win a series, finishing it off is the hardest thing to do,’’ Keefe said. “When you’re playing against the back-to-back champs, that know nothing but winning … it’s even harder.’’
Some playoff wins are remembered more than others. This night felt like one of those. The roar of Scotiabank Arena was near deafening at the buzzer, the 4-3 comeback win an appreciation for what an often-criticized core had delivered on this night.
Simply put, it felt like the kind of game you look back on if this Leafs team finally does get over the playoff hump as a breakthrough moment.
“Well I don’t think that tonight is going to matter if we don’t take the next step, the hardest step,’’ Keefe said. “But I certainly believe in the event we are able to get this done, we will absolutely look back on tonight as a huge moment for our team.
“But you can’t live in this moment,” added the Leafs coach. “This moment is now done. We take the experience, we take a look at what we’ve learned and the confidence we pull out of it and the excitement we have going forward. We got to know what’s ahead.
“We know it’s going to be the hardest one.’’
(Photo: Mark Blinch / NHLI via Getty Images)
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