TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The Toronto Maple Leafs are eager to leave nearly two decades of playoff futility behind them.
Seizing an opportunity to prove they’re no longer a team that falls short at the most important time of the year, the Leafs ended an 11-game losing streak in elimination games and beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 in overtime Saturday night.
The victory gave Toronto its first postseason series win since 2004 and sends the Maple Leafs into the Eastern Conference semifinals against Boston or Florida.
The Bruins and Panthers are tied 3-3 in their first-round series. Game 7 is Sunday in Boston.
“It’s felt different all season,” coach Sheldon Keefe said. “It’s nice to sit up here and say it is different.”
The Maple Leafs were 0 for 7 in playoff appearances from 2013 to 2022, including first-round exits each of the past six seasons.
To get past Tampa Bay, Toronto won three times in overtime on the road and ended the Lightning’s run of three straight appearances in the Stanley Cup Final. The visiting team won five of six games, with the Maple Leafs taking Games 3, 4 and 6 in Tampa despite being outplayed for long stretches.
Defenseman Morgan Rielly said he and teammates were both happy and relieved to finally get over the hump. He also said it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what’s different about this season’s team,
“It’s a tough question,” said Rielly, who scored the winning goal in Game 3. “I don’t think there’s any right answer.”
John Tavares had his first career playoff hat trick in a home victory in Game 2 and delivered the series winner at 4:35 of overtime Saturday night.
A year ago, the Lightning rallied from 2-1 and 3-2 series deficits to eliminate the Maple Leafs from the opening round in seven games. This time, Toronto twice trailed in the third period before coming from behind to win in OT.
“Even when they were being leaned on by us, they were opportunistic,” said Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper, who felt the Lightning played better against Toronto this year than they did in eliminating the Maple Leafs in 2022.
“For a team and organization that has really had struggles in the playoffs, at some point they were going to get a break,” Cooper added. “It just sucks it was in a series against us.”
Now that they’ve finally managed to escape the first round, Keefe and his players say there’s no room for complacency.
“It’s been a long time coming for a lot of players in our locker room, a long time coming for me, and Leafs nation,” Keefe said.
“At the same time,” Tavares added, “it’s just one step.”
Fred Goodall, The Associated Press