It seemed only fitting that if the Leafs were going to finally achieve what hasn’t been achievable over the last nine years, they’d do it in our nation’s capital. A city where Toronto has seen a lot of playoff success and the team they last beat in the postseason.
The Maple Leafs had been playing their worst hockey of the season in the build-up to Saturday night’s game. Confidence appeared to be at its lowest. But the day started well and the Leafs weren’t even involved.
A New York Islanders 5-4 shootout win over the Winnipeg Jets set the stage for the Maple Leafs. Win in regulation or overtime against the Senators and talk of the playoffs are no longer the butt of jokes in this town; playoffs become reality.
Things didn’t start well, as the first period of the game resembled the previous nine that drew the ire of head coach Randy Carlyle. The Maple Leafs were outshot 18-5 in the opening frame and they had a goal by Dion Phaneuf called back after referees deemed Leo Komarov had interfered with Sens’ netminder Craig Anderson.
But the second period opened up for Toronto as the offence started to get going.
James van Riemsdyk scored a pair of goals to give Toronto a lead before Jakob Silfverberg would cut the lead down to one just ahead the second intermission. Cody Franson and Phil Kessel would grab assists on both goals. For the latter, his team leading 47th and 48th points of the season.
In the third period, with the tension running thick at ScotiaBank Place, Nazem Kadri gave the Leafs some breathing room as he busted out of an eight-game scoring slump at just the right time to restore the two goal lead. Joffrey Lupul would make it 4-1 late in regulation, delivering the final dagger and relief across Leafs Nation.
The playoffs are for real.
“I think we were losing our confidence a bit over the last few games,” Kadri said. “This was an important statement game for us to get back to where we needed to be.”
From Day 1 Carlyle talked about wanting to earn the respect back for the organization and he reaffirmed that following the victory.
“For periods of time, there has been a lot of sand kicked in the face of the people in Toronto and hopefully this gives them something to stand up and cheer for,” Carlyle said.
James Reimer continued his absolute dominance of Ottawa. He improved to 8-1-1 all-time against the Senators. But more impressive, he is 6-0-0 with two shutouts this season with a save percentage of .977 and a goals against average of 0.85. To give you an idea of how ridiculous that is, his goals against average went up slightly after giving up just one goal.
“I have no idea why I’m getting good results here,” Reimer said following his 49 save performance. “It’s fun and it’s great atmosphere. A lot of passionate fans here on both sides and it makes for a great game.”
The excitement filled the locker room here in Ottawa, including the newcomers who didn’t have to go through any of the playoff strife as some of the others.
“I feel personally, it’s more fun in a market like this with the playoffs because of all the attention and excitement that comes with playing in a market like this,” van Riemsdyk said. “It’ll be like the baseball playoffs with the Yankees. There is always an excitement around that city when that happens, so I’m looking forward to playing in some playoff games here.”
There is a lot this team needs to improve on. But Saturday night was about celebrating what Toronto has accomplished and for the long-suffering fans who had to endure those March games of yesteryear that used to be painful to watch.
Your team is moving on and if you’ve been waiting for it, here’s hoping it’ll be exciting.
This article first appeared on Sportsnet.ca.