This time, you could feel the tide changing.
Back before the Toronto Maple Leafs finally broke their first-round curse — before they found that elusive killer instinct, before they tasted for themselves some of that Amalie Arena glory — Ryan O’Reilly sat in his stall at the club’s practice facility in Etobicoke.
He wore an unsullied royal blue Maple Leafs ballcap, a fresh one broken out to commemorate the official first day of Toronto’s 2023 playoff campaign, and a wide grin, missing teeth, parted his scruffy beard. “This is the best time of the year,” he said, three days before his team marched into Game 1 of their first-round redux against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the weight of the world heavy on their shoulders. “This is what you play for all season.”
Back then, two divergent paths were equally likely: they’d do it, or they wouldn’t. The misery familiar to Leafs fans would either culminate in a long-awaited bit of triumph or simply continue, maybe forever. But it did feel like these Leafs had something different. And that whole vibe, seemed to be embodied by O’Reilly — he of Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe memories — sitting there, nerveless, in Maple Leafs colours, grinning.
“Having a deep run before, I think that can help for sure,” O’Reilly said, reflecting on the potential influence of his champion savvy. “Every year’s different, the team’s completely different. But still, I think it just gives me confidence going in.
“I know what it should look like.”
Pressed that day for the secret formula, the veteran offered another smile, a few of those Cup-claiming memories seeming to flash across his eyes. “It’s something that I don’t even know how to explain,” he said. “It’s decisions that you make at the right times.”
Saturday night, 1,700 kilometres away from their city — where the streets teemed with blue-and-white sweaters and nerve-wrecked fans watching in the rain, anxiously awaiting this moment — the Maple Leafs made the right decisions, at the right times, and finally broke through.
LIKE THESE LEAFS have always done, they couldn’t hand out the hope all at once, right from the jump. There had to be chaos. There had to be drama.
Drama like a Game 1 drubbing, a 7-3 Tampa Bay beatdown in a contest that seemed over a minute in. That had the home crowd in shambles watching their club skitter and stumble across the ice, pucks bobbling, passes misfiring, everything looking askew.
Two nights later, everyone piled back into Scotiabank Arena for Game 2, unsure of what was about to take place out on the ice. Another dismantling or a counterpunch? It felt pivotal. It felt like the series was already getting away from them.
But the Maple Leafs showed their first signs of life before the puck dropped.
Buried in criticism in the wake of his club’s series opener — accused of overthinking his line-matching, of taking his stars out of the rhythm of the game by pulling them off the ice to protect them from Jon Cooper’s shutdown hounds — Sheldon Keefe decided to let his own dogs off the leash for Game 2.
Over the boards for the opening faceoff came Tampa Bay’s Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn and Brandon Hagel. Across from them: Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and Calle Jarnkrok.
Forty seconds after the puck hit the ice, the decision proved to be inspired. As the Bolts tried to march down the ice and once again deal an early blow, there was Marner, side-stepping the jab and landing an uppercut, darting forward to intercept a seemingly harmless pass from Killorn and forcing Ian Cole to haul him to the ice, pushing Tampa Bay onto the back foot before they’d caught their breath.
Another seven seconds, and he had Tampa stumbling.
Marner and the rest of the top power-play unit lined up in the Bolts’ zone. The puck dropped. It found its way back to Morgan Rielly, who shuffled it over to No. 16, waiting at the point. And despite his hundreds of hours of NHL shifts spent skating circles around opponents, feathering passes through swinging sticks and establishing a reputation as one of the game’s premier facilitators, this time Marner simply kicked the puck to his blade, loaded up and unleashed a throwback clapper.
The early goal put the Bolts on tilt, and they didn’t recover. Toronto spun that early snowball into an avalanche by the game’s end. More than that, though, the 7-2 final sent a message these Leafs could hang with the three-time Cup finalists, they could answer the bell.
How might it all have played out if they came out just as nervous, just as cautious, and got buried again?
The right decisions at the right times.
“This is where they step up. In the biggest moments. In the playoffs,” wide-eyed rookie Matthew Knies said from the locker room that night, asked about a blowout that saw Marner, Rielly, Matthews, William Nylander and John Tavares combine for 14 points. “This is where we need them to step up, and they all did. They’re leaders in this locker room. I look up to all those guys. They set an example for us.”
Said Marner, of his series-altering opening-shift decision to leap into the path of that Tampa Bay pass: “I just trusted myself to make a play.”
CUT TO GAME 3.
The blowouts had been exchanged, the true tone established. Now came the underwater grind expected in the post-season, the clawing and grasping for any bit of progress, the smallest crack of daylight.
With the night all but finished, this one had gotten away from Toronto. The Lightning led 3-2 as the clock wound down to the final minute. It seemed settled — the Leafs would have to come back in two nights and aim for a split, try to pull level in the series before heading back home.
But then came that same grin, splitting that scruffy beard.
With less than a minute left on the night, O’Reilly planted himself at the top of Andrei Vasilevskiy’s crease, weathering the cross-checks and slashes. Waiting. Nylander got the hint, threw the puck in O’Reilly’s direction, trusting No. 90 to make a play. A netfront shuffle later, and the puck was over the line, the game tied.
And then overtime. Another final minute with the result uncertain. And there was O’Reilly again, hunched over the faceoff dot, all business. He won the draw clean as you can, delivering the puck to a waiting Rielly. Head up, eyes on Vasilevskiy, the defender collected the puck and flipped it on net, past the netminder’s shoulder, into the twine.
Reflecting later on that winning goal, on the greatest piece of playoff history he’s authored yet, Rielly praised his setup man. “You know, playing against him and now playing with him, you can tell that he really likes those moments and those challenges,” the longest-tenured Leaf said of O’Reilly. “He seems to really enjoy them. He’s not fazed by the pressure when we’re down, or late in games.
“If you watch him over the course of a game, or a couple games, you really appreciate the way that he plays, doing all the little things. Winning faceoffs, blocking shots, being in the right spots defensively. … Big goal at the end, big block, won the faceoff in overtime. His name’s all over this game.”
For the long-suffering fans watching back home, those two back-to-back moments were cathartic — the precise plays that had seemed to elude their team year after year. The late goals. The overtime goals. The clutch goals.
“There’s not much else to say. We get him for these moments,” Keefe said of O’Reilly’s ability to set in motion such a comeback. “He was talking through it — even though, territorially, we were getting it taken to us pretty good tonight, he’s talking through it. He’s keeping the guys upbeat. He’s keeping us positive. It’s so important.”
Two nights later, they’d need his voice more than ever.
Game 4. Third period. Down 4-1. Momentum again slipping through their fingers, with 10 minutes left to find their footing. If anyone had any cosmic reason to claw their way back from a 4-1 deficit, it was these Leafs. And here they were, with O’Reilly in their ear again, telling them to fight. Showing them what it looks like.
It looked like T.J. Brodie, breaking open the Bolts’ defence with a daring backhand pass straight up the gut, sending Nylander in on attack. It looked like a drop pass to Marner, a one-touch to Matthews, and that signature wrister fluttering the twine.
If not for that one, cutting Tampa’s lead to two, where do these Leafs end up? How far does their belief carry them if that goal comes two minutes later, five minutes later? If the Bolts close that one out, if they even the series before heading back to Toronto?
“The message in the third period: ‘Don’t go away. Stay with it,’” Keefe said of his team’s crucial push. “You aren’t necessarily at that point thinking you’re going to come back in the game. You just want to stay there and give yourself a chance to come back in the game, versus just going away and moving on to the next one.
“I just pushed the guys to stay with it. Have a positive period, seek to win the period, and once you do that, you start chipping away and you have a chance.”
Another goal from Matthews, another from Rielly, another statement performance, and they pulled level. En route to their actual goal of winning the game, of winning the series, they managed to come up with a bonus gift for the fans back home: “It was 4-1.”
And then it was overtime, the moment calling for another key decision. This time it was Nylander, stumbling the Bolts with a burst of brilliance, taking the puck off an offensive zone faceoff and darting to the slot, dancing around Cirelli, forcing Mikhail Sergachev to lay out and take his legs out. Toronto to the power play.
Late in the man-advantage try, No. 88 hopped over the boards again. He carried the puck up ice with ease, slipping into Tampa’s zone and dishing to a streaking Kerfoot. Before he peeled back to the point, Nylander was tagged with a high stick, but he was unfazed. He stayed engaged, and a moment later, had the puck back on his stick. He drew in a defender, before throwing the puck over to Mark Giordano, who took a beat, fired it on net, and watched Kerfoot deflect it home.
It was 5-4.
“We attacked overtime. That was different from what it was the night before,” Keefe said that evening, his Leafs having built a 3-1 lead in this series, this first-round upon which so much of this organization’s future seemed to hang. “We came out, we were on the attack, and we drew a penalty because we were on the attack. Willy made a great play coming off the wall.
“That mindset — even from this overtime to a couple of nights ago — there is a difference there.”
Down the hall, the Lightning licked their wounds, wondering how they’d turned in three strong performances and found themselves needing three straight wins to keep their season alive. It had all gone off the rails.
A few days earlier, his team up a game in the series, Cooper had wondered just how weighty the Leafs counterpunch might be. “Momentum, it’s a pendulum,” the Bolts coach said on the morning of Game 2, before Toronto stacked three wins on his club. “When it swings your way, you’ve got to keep it rolling as long as you can, because it can change in an instant.
“You’ve got to try to keep it rolling as long as possible, because at some point it is going to change.”
THAT PENDULUM SWUNG once more back in Cooper’s direction, before swinging again.
After a Game 5 misstep that had the doomsayers waxing poetic again, that threw Leafs Nation into a familiar mess, Keefe’s squad went to Tampa, took a breath, and won the thing.
And who else would it be leading the charge on the night they did?
It was Matthews first, looking relentless, playing with purpose again, playing with the swagger that had been replaced by a business-like determination throughout the series. Fourteen minutes into the final game of his first round, No. 34 flashed some of that 2022 form, firing a first shot on Vasilevskiy, then a second, before finally telling Brodie where to put it and unleashing a one-timer that broke the deadlock.
It was Tavares second, the captain scoring his club’s last goal of the series after setting up its first. The hometown kid making good on that oft-criticized pact he made when he chose to sign with his boyhood club.
And in one last bit of playoff poetry, it was the rookie, Knies, out there setting up that series clincher. How better to encapsulate the full weight of Tavares’ impact on this franchise than to see Knies — who’s spent the past two weeks living in the captain’s basement, shadowing the pro’s pro, learning what it means to be a leader in a fishbowl — showing the composure he did in that moment?
You have to step back and rewind to get proper perspective on the leaps and bounds the young winger’s taken over these six games. Before Knies made his playoff debut, just four games earlier, Luke Schenn — he of 15 NHL seasons, seven big-league franchises, and two Cups — marvelled at the youngster’s situation. “The last two weeks have probably been a complete whirlwind for him, coming out of college and signing his first pro contract,” Schenn said. “Most guys probably play a pre-season game, or have a couple games in the minors.
“He’s stepping right into the fire.”
Here’s how the University of Minnesota product handled the heat: First, he came up with a sterling debut in Game 2, his line out-shooting Tampa 9-1 at even strength. Two nights later, he set up Toronto’s first goal of Game 3. His next time out, he pulled a puck off the goal line in Game 4, preventing the Bolts from building up an even more dominant early lead before his Leafs mounted the comeback.
And in Game 6, in overtime, with everything on the line? He won a battle deep in Tampa’s zone, fighting off Sergachev in the corner and slipping the puck along the wall to Tavares, who walked out, spun, and fired home the series winner.
The right decisions. The right times.
“I didn’t want to just come here to be here,” Knies said of his journey five nights earlier. “I wanted to come here to be a difference.”
In the end, he was.
To trace this team’s first-round success from its beginning, though, you have to rewind back before the rookie entered the fray in Game 2, before the puck even dropped on Game 1. You have to go back two months, before this playoff march began. It was then that the first crucial decisions were made, not on the ice but in quiet rooms in the bowels of Scotiabank Arena, where GM Kyle Dubas took his swings and brought new blood into his locker room.
It was the decision to add O’Reilly, whose voice has proved so essential thus far. It was the decision to add Schenn and Jake McCabe and Noel Acciari, who brought a steadiness to this group and a stiff pushback against the heavies on the other side. And it was the lesser-used pieces, too, who armed Keefe with the depth and flexibility to drastically alter his lineup in the final game of this series.
Of all the decisions that led the Leafs through their years-long storm of disappointment and finally — finally — past Round 1, Dubas’s were the first.
Toronto made plenty of wrong ones, too — enough to drop Game 1 of this series, and Game 5 too. Enough to require nail-biting comebacks three times en route to the final handshake line. Still, here they are — finally free of those annual questions, finally reaping the rewards of that all-important ‘killer instinct.’
“I don’t really know what killer instinct is,” Keefe said earlier in this series, when it wasn’t yet clear how this all would end. “I don’t know if it’s a tangible thing or not. It’s sort of a made-up term that describes a team that gets good results, and gets it done.
“We are trying to be that.”
For now, they are. And for that, for the first time in nearly two decades, the Leafs can look forward.
How far it takes them from here, we’ll see. The real glory, the real achievement, still sits miles ahead — 12 wins away, to be precise. For many outside of Toronto, this team has proved little yet. But within the walls of Scotiabank Arena, spilling out into Maple Leaf Square, up York St. and beyond, it’s understood: Regardless of what happens next, some measure of cloud-clearing, of curse-breaking, of waving away ghosts, was done here.
The Maple Leafs are moving on.