[Auston Matthews] needs to assume control of this opening round… first, by leading the way at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday with at least one important, timely goal; then with some form of coup de grace either in Game 6 or 7.
— From my blog after the Leafs were blown out in Game 4 at Tampa.
TORONTO (May 11) — Mission accomplished for Auston Matthews and full credit to the National Hockey League’s leading goal scorer, who beat Andrei Vasilevskiy with 6:06 left in regulation time last night at Scotiabank Arena for the “important, timely goal” so desperately needed by the Toronto Maple Leafs. That’s what the truly great ones do — rise above the fray in the “money” moments of a playoff game. Sidney Crosby continues to make a career out of such an exploit; now Matthews, in his sixth playoff spring, has counted the biggest goal of his career. Neither can he stop, nor be satisfied with the tally that gave Toronto a 3–2 lead in the opening round. The Maple Leafs haven’t closed out a playoff series in more than 18 years and it’s the two–time defending champs they must subdue; either tomorrow night on the Gulf coast or Saturday, in a winner–take–all Game 7 on Bay St.
To be sure, the Leafs would not have been in position for Matthews to score the decisive goal had Jack Campbell not slammed the door on the Lightning during a 5–on–3 powerplay midway through the first period, which had all the earmarks of a replay from Sunday night in Tampa. The visitors led, 2–0, on goals by Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman. A third marker, with a one or two–man advantage, likely would have finished the Leafs for the night. But, Smilin’ Jack made a sequence of difficult stops to keep his club within striking distance. It’s a splendid combination at playoff time: a team’s goalie and best shooter leading the way when it matters most. We’ve seen it through the years with such duos as Ken Dryden and Guy Lafleur; Billy Smith and Mike Bossy; Grant Fuhr and Wayne Gretzky; Marc–Andre Fleury and Crosby; Vasilevskiy and Nikita Kucherov. For one night, at least, we can add Campbell and Matthews to the vaunted list. It has to happen frequently for Toronto to win the Stanley Cup.
AUSTON MATTHEWS BEATS ANDREI VASILEVSKIY WITH THE DECISIVE GOAL LATE IN THE THIRD PERIOD LAST NIGHT AT SCOTIABANK ARENA. NHL1/GETTY IMAGES
And, the Maple Leafs could be entering familiar territory… for those of vintage. It’s beginning to remind me a bit of 1993, when the Leafs ultimately advanced to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup semifinals before losing to Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings. Toronto, that spring, upset Detroit in the opening series and St. Louis (83 points) shocked No. 1 seed Chicago (106 points) in a four–game sweep. In the East, the New York Islanders (87 points) bounced the NHL’s best team from the regular season, the two–time–champion Pittsburgh Penguins (119 points), in Round 2. The Leafs’ opposition actually became “weaker” as the Stanley Cup tournament progressed: from Detroit (103 points) to St. Louis and the Kings (88 points, but with Gretzky having struggling through back pain). If Washington proceeds to eliminate Florida in the current playoff round — and the Leafs are able to finish off Tampa — the Presidents’ Trophy winner and defending champion will be sidelined. Moving the Leafs to a likely No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, behind Carolina (leading Boston, 3–2 in games), but ahead of Pittsburgh and Washington. It would set up a second–round match between the Leafs and Capitals, with Toronto again starting at home. Still poisonous, given Alex Ovechkin’s presence, but preferable to beginning on the road against the Panthers.
In 1993, of course, the Leafs — not quite as gifted as the current team — were dragged through the second half of the season and three playoff rounds by future Hall–of–Famer Doug Gilmour, who put up a franchise–record 35 points in 21 Stanley Cup games. Which remains the challenge for Matthews today, providing that Campbell can replicate the brilliant performance, 29 years ago, of Felix Potvin. At the moment, and until the Maple Leafs close the door on Tampa Bay, this is mostly talk and largely irrelevant. The Toronto side with Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly, hasn’t yet shown a finishing touch in the playoffs. It was only three years ago that Mike Babcock’s Leafs went to Boston and played a terrific Game 5, grabbing a 3–2 series lead over the Bruins. Back on home ice, before a national TV audience in Canada and the U.S., the Leafs came up small, losing, 4–2… then got their doors blown off at TD Garden in Game 7. So, this clash with T–Bay isn’t over.
Can Matthews, Campbell and Co. break the win–one, lose–one series pattern with a victory tomorrow night at Amalie Arena? Stanley Cup history shows the Leafs with a 79 percent chance of moving on (the odds while leading a best–of–seven round 3–2). For the record, Matthews was only six years old; Campbell, 12, when the Leafs of Ed Belfour, Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker and Bryan McCabe eliminated the Ottawa Senators on Apr. 20, 2004 for Toronto’s most–recent series triumph. The current group would surely love to end that ignominious drought.
Again, it’s up to Auston and Smilin’ Jack — the winning combo, last night, at Scotiabank Arena.