Toronto Maple Leafs: Revisiting a Playoff Clinching Win in 2017

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 8: Connor Brown
TORONTO, ON - APRIL 8: Connor Brown /

Three years ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs clinched their first playoff spot since 2013.

Although the Toronto Maple Leafs had made the playoffs four years prior, this year felt more important.

When the team had advanced in 2013, they did it in a shortened season and outperformed their capabilities. If that season had been extended to 82 games, they most likely wouldn’t have actually made the playoffs.

That’s what made April 8, 2017 so special. For the first time since 2004, the Leafs actually had an opportunity to make the playoffs in a full 82-game schedule.

After tanking in the 2015-16 season and rebuilding the Leafs roster, the team was looking to improve in 2016-17, yet playoffs were most likely not in the question.

In The Hockey News Season Preview, the website displayed pessimism towards the team:

"“They likely won’t repeat as the league’s worst team, but a bottom five finish is still probable.”"

With limited expectations, fans were excited to watch a full season of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner.

Although a playoff berth was a pipe dream, having a number of youthful superstars rejuvenated the fan-base and injected true enthusiasm into the city for the first time since the early 2000s.

Toronto Maple Leafs Playoff Dream Becomes a Realty

Flash-forward 80 games later to April 8, 2017 and those playoff thoughts were getting real.

On Hockey Night in Canada against the Pittsburgh Penguins, a win would clinch them a playoff berth.

For those of you who were in the building, or watched at home, there was a sense of nervousness. The pit in every Toronto Maple Leafs fans stomach was real. This wasn’t a normal game.

This had real meaning, and it was against Sidney Crosby and the defending Stanley Cup champions. The stage doesn’t get much bigger than that for a regular season game and everyone was nervous to find out if the Toronto Maple Leafs were up to the challenge.

First Period

Early into the first period, Pittsburgh went up 1-0 when none other than former Leaf Phil Kessel scored his 23rd goal of the year.

That lead didn’t last long though, as James van Riemsdyk scored seconds later to tie the game 1-1.

Time to breathe, Leaf fans.

After the first period, the game was still tied and tension continued to build into the second period.

Second Period

The fun part of being a Leafs fan is the roller-coaster ride of emotions that this team brings one. No matter the situation, whether good or bad, there’s always a curve ball thrown that you don’t expect, and that’s what happened in the second period.

Two minutes into the period, Frederik Andersen was taken out of the game when Penguins forward Tom Sestito knocked him over in front of the net. As a result, the Leafs now had to rely on back-up goalie Curtis McElhinney to fill the void.

McElhinney is a veteran goaltender who’s played great this season but coming in cold against one of the best teams in the NHL in the biggest game of the season is a lot to ask for, for anyone.

Fortunately for the Leafs, Tyler Bozak scored on the power-play that occurred from Sestito’s hit on Andersen and the Leafs were now in the lead again.

However, before the period ended, Crosby (of course) scored a power-play goal of his own, making the game 2-2 heading into the third.

Third Period

The Leafs were now 20 minutes away from clinching a playoff spot and had to do it without their starting goaltender against one of the best teams in hockey.

Early into the third period, Penguins rookie Jake Guentzel scored unassisted to put his team in front 3-2.

As time was quickly ticking away, the Leafs playoff chances felt slimmer as the seconds went by. However, with just over five minutes left, Matt Hunwick made the pass of his life to find Kasperi Kapanen alone in front of the net, who tapped in the tying goal.

Not only was this a huge goal in Leafs history, it was Kapanen’s first career goal and first point in the NHL.

Not a bad way to kick-start a career, Kappy.

With the game tied, every second that ensued was torture. Were the Leafs going to be able to find a way to win this game or was this season not meant to be?

Then, with 2:48 left on the clock, it happened.

Jake Gardiner fired a puck on net from the blue-line that Connor Brown read perfectly. Brown turned his stick and used it like a ramp, which moved the puck over the left shoulder of Matt Murray.

Just like that, the Leafs were up 4-3 with only minutes remaining.

That goal was electrifying. It was an unexpected tip-in from a hometown kid who had never been happier in his life. Jumping for joy with Nazem Kadri, it wouldn’t be surprising if you didn’t have tears in your eyes after watching that goal.

Although the team had the lead with limited time on the clock, you can never count out Pittsburgh and they almost came back.

With 49 seconds left, Sidney Crosby was left all alone on a one-timer, however McElhinney stuck his left pad out and saved the season, denying one of the greatest players in NHL history.

dark. Next. Leafs: Pros and Cons of a Playoff Play-In Game

To put icing on the cake, Auston Matthews scored an empty netter for his 40th goal of the season and just like that, the Leafs were off to the playoffs!

This game will go down as one of the most fun regular season games in Leafs history and helped accelerate the rebuild like no one expected.