The Leafs proved the doubters, including yours truly, wrong.
This columnist said, after the team’s disastrous California road trip in March “Don’t get your hopes up.”
What did Mike Babcock’s squad do? Why, they reeled off eleven wins in their next 14 games. And, despite a pair of back-to-back setbacks this week, the edge-of-your-seat battle for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference culminated in a 5-3 Leafs win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
By no means was the result – the Leafs’ first playoff clinch in an 82-game schedule since 2003-04 – a foregone conclusion; not until Auston Matthews sealed the game win an empty-netter with 3.4 ticks on the clock did the 19,561 fans at Air Canada Centre collectively exhale.
In fact when Phil Kessel opened the scoring in the first period, the goal coming from an ex-Leaf only seemed to compound the anxiety of Toronto fans (although this columnist is generally adverse to booing a player who brought the Stanley Cup to cheer up patients at Sick Kids Hospital).
A response from James van Riemsdyk, 29 seconds later, rejuvenated the rink. The teams played to a first intermission deadlock.
Then, near disaster struck. Pittsburgh’s Tom Sestito, creeping in from the left side of Frederik Andersen, collided with the goaltender, bumping the netminder’s head. Andersen, having sustained a head injury in a game against Buffalo two weeks ago, went down in a heap. He skated off on his own power after lying on the ice for several minutes, but concussion protocol mandated the appearance of Curtis McElhinney between the pipes.
The Leafs season hanging precariously hanging on the shoulders of their backup. Yikes.
But persevere, the blue-and-white clad boys did. And Tyler Bozak put his team in the lead on the power play, converting a cross-ice pass from William Nylander.
Though not to be undone, the Penguins evened it up on a man advantage of their own. Have you heard of number 87? He’s pretty good.
Indeed, Sidney Crosby buried a one-timer that McElhinney, or even a clone of McElhinney, Martin Brodeur, Terry Sawchuk and Jacques Plante had no chance of stopping. The score was knotted at two apiece after forty minutes.
It was shortly into the second intermission that your trusted columnist tweeted a hunch:
2-2 after 40 minutes. I figure either Kessel or Kapanen will be the difference maker in this one. Because, storylines.
— Rob Del Mundo (@Rob_DelMundo) April 9, 2017
Why wouldn’t two of the principals of the Canada Day 2015 trade between these two clubs play a factor into this game’s outcome, Kessel already having drawn first blood?
However, yet another catastrophe ensued. Shortly after Pittsburgh’s Jake Guentzel missed an open net to regain the lead for his team, he floated a harmless-looking shot that caromed off the skate of Jake Gardiner and clumsily past McElhinney driving a dagger through the hearts of Leafs fans.
Who remembers Gretzky banking his hat trick goal off the skate of Dave Ellett in Game 7 in ’93? Or, the turnover by Todd Gill in the final regular season game in ’89 in overtime, sending game-winner Troy Murray and the Blackhawks to the playoffs?
This one felt just as gut-wrenching.
But, remember your trusty tweeter’s prognostication?
In storybook fashion, Kasperi Kapanen chose the prime opportunity to net his first career NHL goal, finishing a back-door play to even the score yet again, and sending all of 40 Bay Street into bedlam. Indeed Kapanen is displaying a penchant for scoring big goals in his young career, having netted the overtime winner that clinched the 2016 World Junior Championship for Finland.
Now, if Jake Guentzel could redeem himself – why not Jake Gardiner?
With 2:48 left in regulation time, the Leafs defender took a shot from the left point that was deflected by Connor Brown over Marc Andre Fleury’s shoulder to give Toronto the lead once again. The ACC was overcome with deafening roars, a playoff spot looming that much larger on the horizon for its tenants.
Putting his stamp on the Leafs win was McElhinney. A last minute save off the stick of Sid The Kid all but sealed the victory. Had Crosby continued his typical Leaf-killing ways, the contest may have just as easily gone to a shootout. And we all know how the Leafs have fared in such tiebreakers this season.
Matthews’s empty-netter was his 40th of the season, establishing yet another milestone for the future Calder Trophy winner.
Lou Lamoriello is famously adverse to allowing his players to sport facial hair. In fact, many of the Leafs who have carried the offensive spark are barely old enough to shave.
But in the immortal words of Joe Bowen, it’s time to “start your playoff beards.”