Leafs fans have been accustomed, year after year, to witness each season end with a whimper.
That didn’t happen on Sunday night, despite Marcus Johansson’s goal at 6:31 of overtime that clinched the Round One playoff series for the Washington Capitals, sending the Leafs to the golf course.
Instead, the 19,740 faithful patrons at Air Canada Centre gave the stick waving, blue and white clad players a rousing ovation in a display of gratitude for a season that few could have predicted.
And who could blame the ticket-buying public? Over the past decade this fan base has been saddled with a painfully abysmal on-ice product, horrendous enough to elicit protests ranging from paper bag masks, to waffles – or even sweaters – tossed onto the surface.
Not this year, though.
For 82 regular season games, plus six thrilling playoff outings – five of which went into overtime – Leafs Nation was treated to watching a team having not only an abundance of young, dynamic talent, but a roster instilled with a strong, resilient work ethic.
They took the Presidents’ Trophy winners to six one-goal games, fer cryin’ out loud.
They looked like they were on their way to creeping towards the upset, when Auston Matthews took advantage of a strange stanchion bounce in the third period, and extended his goal streak to four games to break what had been a scoreless deadlock.
Were the Leafs a team of destiny? Not so fast. There were many reasons why the Capitals had the best regular season record in the league. One of them is a potent top-six forward unit.
Indeed, the Evgeny Kuzentsov-Justin Williams-Marcus Johansson line was the most potent for the visitors on Sunday night. And while his linemates weren’t on the ice, Johansson managed to poke the puck from underneath Frederik Andersen to knot the game at a goal apiece.
The series headed for overtime for a fifth time, equaling an NHL record set by the Leafs and Montreal Canadiens in the 1951 Stanley Cup Final, a five-game epic that ended with Bill Barilko’s “Fifty Mission Cap”-inspiring goal.
The extra period was dominated by the Capitals, the Leafs playing much of it on their heels without establishing much in the way of possession.
On the series-winning play, Kuznetsov beat Brian Boyle cleanly on the faceoff and the puck came to John Carlson on the point. Carlson dished off to Friday’s overtime hero Justin Williams on the right wing, and Williams took a shot that was tipped by Johansson, who fought off coverage by Leafs defenceman Martin Marincin to deflect the puck past Frederik Andersen.
The Danish goalie was easily the Leafs’ best player of the night, making 34 saves, many of them under challenging, point-blank circumstances.
Disappointed, but undaunted, the spectators spontaneously broke out into a chorus of “Go Leafs Go” as the handshake line progressed.
Indeed with the rebuild accelerated, the team is ‘going’, and rather expeditiously, in the direction of becoming a contender.