They saw the Vegas Golden Knights come into being and immediately win three playoff rounds. They saw Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa and Vancouver each advance to the Stanley Cup final. In fact, they’ve seen every other NHL franchise except one enjoy the kind of playoff breakthroughs that have eluded them for 16 long years.
And now the Toronto Maple Leafs have a chance to progress.
The current players take no responsibility for the 5,955 days that have passed since Joe Nieuwendyk and Ed Belfour led Toronto to a Game 7 victory over the Ottawa Senators on April 20, 2004, but they are now linked with a larger story.
That will certainly be on the minds of many people heading into Sunday night’s all-or-nothing Game 5 against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
This Stanley Cup qualifying series will immediately become part of the folklore of these regions if Toronto succeeds. The odds for the Maple Leafs to wipe out a 3-0 deficit with less than four minutes to go and win Friday’s game, after blowing their own 3-0 lead in an overtime loss 24 hours earlier, have was estimated to be around 1 in 140,000.
The obituaries were written about their season and they improbably found new life.
“The feeling after the game was great,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “The amount of joy I have seen from our team exceeds anything I have seen from us. “
Forget the larger history of the organization, the core of the current group is feeling the weight of recent years. Auston Matthews spoke of the “ups and downs” they’ve suffered with back-to-back playoff losses to Boston and a six-game loss to Washington in 2017, and wanting to avoid writing the same old story.
He is one of seven players to play in each of those 23 playoff games, joined by Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Kasperi Kapanen, Morgan Rielly and Frederik Andersen.
They took on growing expectations and headed for a breakthrough. This is what Friday night could ultimately represent. Toronto played 1:59 with Andersen on the bench for an additional forward, completed 13 assists, generated five scoring chances and found the three goals needed to force overtime.
Then Matthews ended a deadly power play after Rielly was tripped over by Blue Jackets captain Nick Foligno.
“I’ve never been in anything like this,” said veteran Leafs forward Jason Spezza, who was a 2003-04 Senators but did not play against Toronto on the night of the game. last playoff series.
“With the firepower that we have with these guys, the way they can put the puck in the net, we’re never out. And there is a great sense of trust in our group.
In the most unusual playoffs, they had a wild streak with Columbus.
A shutout for each team at the start, followed by consecutive returns of three goals. Swings are almost like something you would see in the NBA, rather than the NHL, with the Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs in the midst of a scoring frenzy.
The winner of Game 5 will draw the Tampa Bay Lightning, who played the round robin without captain Steven Stamkos and saw defenseman Victor Hedman leave Saturday’s game due to injury.
But as we have learned now, nothing should be taken for granted. Lightning coach Jon Cooper said half-jokingly, “Well, all three goals are not sure” when asked what challenge his team awaits.
On Sunday night, Toronto and Columbus will each look to lock things down with their seasons on the line. Take a lead and clear the life of their opponent.
“We can’t fight,” Marner said. “We know we can play a great defensive game when we put our minds to it – double check, forward check, without giving them a lot to come on the ice.
Spirits in small places.
A great opportunity to create new memories.