The Toronto Maple Leafs finally advanced in the NHL playoffs, and coach Sheldon Keefe struggled to find the right words to capture the moment.
“It’s been a long road for a lot of our guys. … They’ve been through a lot, been questioned a lot,” he said Saturday night after John Tavares scored 4:35 into overtime, and the Maple Leafs beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 for their first postseason win in nearly two decades.
“Today is a significant step, but we’re not going to celebrate anything beyond,” Keefe added. “There’s a lot of work ahead. … I feel like the best is yet to come.”
Ending a frustrating drought that included first-round exits each of the past six years, the Maple Leafs won the best-of-seven matchup in six games and advanced to Eastern Conference semifinals against Boston or Florida. The Bruins and Panthers play Game 7 of their first-round series on Sunday in Boston.
“You’re relieved, and you’re happy,” Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly said. “At the same time, it’s the first round. We want to keep going.”
Toronto advanced in a series for the first time since 2004, winning three times in overtime on the road and ending an 11-game losing streak in elimination games.
The loss, meanwhile, ends Tampa Bay’s run of three consecutive appearances in the Stanley Cup Final. The Lightning won back-to-back championships in 2020 and 2021, and then lost to the Colorado Avalanche in six games last year.
“We played well enough to win the series, but you can’t lose three overtime games at home,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
Still, coming up short against the Maple Leafs was tough after winning 11 of 12 playoff series over the previous three postseasons.
“This team hasn’t lost a playoff series against the Eastern Conference since 2019. It’s 2023,” Cooper said. “We’re not used to this feeling.”
Auston Matthews scored his fifth goal of the series for Toronto, beating Andrei Vasilevskiy from the top of the right circle at 13:47 of the second period. Tavares added the winner, which trickled past the Lightning goalie after deflecting off a defender’s skate.
“Obviously, it a great feeling when the puck goes into the net,” said Tavares, who had his first career playoff hat trick to key a win at home in Game 2.
The Maple Leafs also won Games 3 and 4 on the road, with Rielly and Alexander Kerfoot scoring winning goals in overtime.
“You can’t beat Tampa Bay without it being a team effort,” Keefe said.
Steven Stamkos scored for the Lightning, which a year ago rallied from 2-1 and 3-2 series deficits to eliminate Toronto in the first round in seven games.
Stamkos felt Tampa Bay played better this year than it did in defeating the Maple Leafs during the 2022 playoffs.
“I agree,” Cooper said.
Two nights after stopping 28 shots to fend off elimination and trim Toronto’s series lead to 3-2 in Game 5, Vasilevskiy was on top of his game again.
Toronto goalie Ilya Samsonov was just as good, though, holding Tampa Bay scoreless until Stamkos positioned himself perfectly in front of the net to knock in a rebound at 4:19 of the third period.
Samsonov finished with 31 saves. Vasilevskiy stopped 20 of 22 shots.
Toronto forward Michael Bunting returned to the lineup for the first time since he was suspended for three games for an illegal check to the head and interference against Tampa Bay defenseman Erik Cernak during Game 1. He was eligible to return for Game 5, but Keefe choose to go with the same lineup for the fourth straight game. Cernak has not played for the Lightning since the series opener.
Fred Goodall, The Associated Press