An unforgettable game: The night I saw the Leafs clinch a playoff spot

Curtis McElhinney making a clutch save on Sidney Crosby. Photo credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

April 8, 2017.

It will forever be known as the day the Toronto Maple Leafs clinched a berth in the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs with a 5-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. A night that won't be forgotten for quite a long time by the passionate Leafs fanbase that have long suffered through years of adversity and heartbreak.

To me, it will be known as the greatest Leafs game I ever saw live. Even better than the lone playoff game I saw live back in 2013.

While my opinion may change years down the road, as it appears to be the beginning of a new era for this storied franchise, no one can take away the experience I had on this night and it is that one I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Getting there

Funny enough, I never originally planned to go watch this game live at all. The tickets were purchased back in September 2016 with the intention of allowing my younger brother watch a game before his birthday. Due to a twist of fate that included cancelled plans, it was decided that I join my brother for the Saturday night tilt against the reighning Stanley Cup champions.

After getting a good friend to cover my shift that night, I picked up my brother and drove down to Finch Station to take the subway down to the Air Canada Centre. Knowing that my brother had not really been following the team up to this point, I talked to him about what was at stake for the Leafs in this crucial match, with a loss putting the team behind the eight-ball for a playoff berth and a win clinching their spot in the post-season.

After about five minutes of explaining the situation, I asked my brother, "So, are you excited for tonight's game?"

"Absolutely!" he replied.

"Don't you feel a little nervous that they might lose?"

"Not really, I feel they have a good chance to win tonight."

"I hope you're right."

The trip to the arena was uneventful for the most part, even though we ran into traffic along Bathurst Street and experienced delays on the subway ride to Union Station. We managed to arrive at the game a few minutes after the opening draw and quickly purchase a dinner at the arena.

As I am waiting for my meal, my attention turns towards a T.V. showing the game that was conveniently placed across the hallway. Seeing the play developing before my eyes, a familiar name is able to free himself and gain some space along the side boards and moving the puck into position before firing a shot that beat Frederik Andersen.

It was Phil Kessel who opened the scoring by breaking a long drought he had leading up to the game. The goal put everyone around me nervous and the sound of frustration of the fans in their seats echoed through the hallways. Upset, but remaining optimistic, I grabbed my dinner, a bowl of macaroni and cheese with hamburger meat, and went to a stand-up table with my brother to eat our meals.

Shortly after getting settled to eat our meals, my eyes turned towards the T.V. nearby and saw Roman Polak send a pass along the ice towards Tyler Bozak. The puck bounced off a few Penguins stick before Bozak knocked it over to a streaking James van Riemsdyk, who deflected it over his head towards the other side of his body before getting it back on his stick and firing it past Marc-Andre Fleury.

The highlight reel goal brought life back into the building and got me pumped for the tying marker. We finished our meals and headed up the escalators towards our seats.

A roller coaster ride of emotions

View of the game from my seats in section 323. Photo credit: Michael Mazzei

We got to our seats with over eight minutes remaining in the opening period. The climb to our seats is a process I have been doing since I was 4-years-old, when my Dad brought me to my first live NHL game. Our view from section 323 has been a familiar sight of mine for many years, providing me a good view of the ice despite being three rows away from the top of the arena.

The final eight minutes of the first period went by in a blur, as both teams went back and forth trying to find space, but failing to do so. As the horn sounded to begin the first intermission, the score was tied at 1-1.

Deciding to remain in my seat for the duration of the break, I took out my phone to check the score for the Islanders and New Jersey Devils game. I noticed that the Islanders won that game 4-2 and I began to feel a bit uneasy knowing the added pressure that has been applied to the Leafs. Despite my emerging fear, I tried not to think too much about it.

About two minutes into the second period, however, that ugly feeling quickly worsened. As the Penguins tried to apply pressure in the offensive zone, Andersen skated out of his crease to try and get a good read on the developing play only to take a devastating hit to the head by Tom Sestito. The crowd went into a stunned silence as they looked on at the injured goalie while a few fans near me get uneasy with the play.

One fan who was seated to my left yelled out, "Great, we are doomed!  There goes our chances to make the playoffs this year." The uncertainty remained with me as Leafs back-up goaltender, Curtis McElhinney, skated towards the net to take over for the injured Andersen. Fortunately enough, the team was given a power play opportunity to take the lead.

On the man advantage, the Leafs had a few chances to capitalize, but either lost the puck to a Penguin or saw Fleury make a save. With about 40 seconds remaining on the power play, William Nylander sent a pass to Bozak who was wide open at the side of the net before banging it into the goal to take the lead.

Bozak's tally brought everyone, including myself, to their feet and was an emotional goal considering Andersen's injury minutes prior. It gave the Leafs momentum for the next few minutes while crowd shouted a passionate "Go Leafs Go" chant for a few moments after.

The momentum didn't last long, however, as the Penguins got a power play opportunity themselves with Sidney Crosby converting to even the score once again. His NHL leading 44th goal of the season got everyone sitting around me concerned that the Penguins had life and that the Leafs were in trouble. Not everyone in the arena thought the same as shortly after play resumed, some fans in the stands started another chant to rally their favourite team.

The rest of the period was a tight affair as both team's looked for the lead. While my brother was reacting to nearly every play throughout, I remained focused on the game and put my school and work in the back of my mind. When the buzzer sounded to end the second period, the score remained tied at 2-2.

I remained in my seat during the second break as my brother went to grab a bag of popcorn at the concession stands underneath our seats. As I sat down and watched the Zambonis clean the ice, I was reminded of the fact that one of the Leafs rookies, Kasperi Kapanen, had yet to score his first NHL goal up to that point.

This made think, "You know, how crazy would it be if Kapanen scores a goal tonight against his former team?"

It was all worth it

Auston Matthews and the fans celebrates after he scored his 40th of the season. Photo credit: Carlos Osorio / Toronto Star / Getty

As the third period got underway, I can recall being anxious for how the game would end. The past two games had not been good for the Leafs, as they lost two straight to both the Washington Capitals and the Tampa Bay Lightning when they had a chance to clinch. Visions of yet another collapse by the team raced through my head as I feared for the possibility of the team potentially missing the playoffs all together.

A few minutes into the period, I overheard two fans talking to each other about the game. "You know, I think someone is gonna let in a soft goal tonight," one fan said.

"Watch, it's the Leafs that do it," the other fan replied.

"That would be the most Leafy thing to ever happen. It would probably be the game winner too."

"Yup, and it would pretty much kill our chances."

Mere minutes after this conversation took place, the unthinkable happened. With Penguins entering the offensive zone to apply pressure, Jake Guentzel positioned himself along the boards before firing a pass intended for one of his line-mates. The puck bounced off of Nikita Zaitsev's leg before being redirected by Jake Gardiner's skate and into the net to give the Penguins the lead again.

When the puck crossed the line, I was left speechless with fear in my eyes. The worst possible thing that could ever happen to the Leafs had actually occurred, and it appeared as though the team was destined to lose this game for sure. Even my brother, who isn't really a huge hockey fan, couldn't believe it went in. For a few moments, the crowd was in quiet disbelief.

Despite the unfortunate goal against them, the Leafs appeared to not be fazed by it. In fact, they appeared to have a bigger jump to their game by applying more pressure in the Pittsburgh end for minutes on end. The crowd soon took notice and were making noise after each scoring chance.

Then, with over five minutes remaining in regulation, the Leafs finally broke through. Auston Matthews, fresh off the bench, skated with the puck behind the net and sending a short pass to Matt Hunwick who was jumping into the play. It didn't stay on his stick long as Hunwick proceeded to send a no-look pass to Kapanen (!) who had a gaping net and proceeded to bury his first NHL goal. 

The arena instantly erupted with passion and emotion knowing the significance of the tying goal. Remembering the thought I had during the second intermission, I cried out, "Oh my god, it actually happened!"

When play resumed, the fans did another "Go Leafs Go" chant for a few moments, but was significantly louder than the previous one in the second period. I had not heard the Air Canada Centre that loud in years, and the pride I felt nearly brought a tear to my eye.

It only took around three minutes before everyone in the building was on their feet again. Hunwick took a shot that went wide of the net before Gardiner went to pick it up near the blue-line. He waited for the screen to be set in front before firing a shot that deflected off of Connor Brown's stick and past Fleury.

Once again, the crowd got extremely excited for the goal but the noise levels were much higher than the previous goal. The chants had more emotion and were louder than ever with fans hoping the goal would be enough to secure a playoff spot.

Pittsburgh had other ideas, as they soon pressed hard in the Toronto end to try and tie the game in the closing minutes. As I watched the drama unfold, a number of passes were made between the Penguins players looking for the perfect opportunity to strike. With under a minute remaining, Kessel was positioned along the boards and spotted a pass to Crosby who was wide open in the slot.

Crosby then fired a one-timer that seemed destined to go into the net and tie the game once again. Except it didn't, as McElhinney came across to make an unbelievable pad save to keep the Leafs ahead. I flew out of my seat in awe at the season-saving stop and could not help but cheer on with the rest of the fans in attendance.

Even after this golden opportunity missed, the Penguins kept the pressure on as long as they could. The fans remained out of their chairs for the entire last minute hoping that the Leafs would hang on for the elusive victory. Crosby had a another chance to score with under 10 seconds remaining, but this attempt was blocked by Polak. Matthews picked up the loose puck, took it out of the zone and fired it into the empty net for the insurance marker.

It was also Matthews' 40th goal of the season. It occurred with 3.4 seconds remaining, coincidentally matching his jersey number. It secured the team's 40th win of the season. Most importantly, it put the Leafs in the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs. Talk about destiny!

Did that really just happen?

Mitch Marner and Matt Martin hug it out following the win. Photo credit:  Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

As the final seconds ticked away before the playoff clinch became official, nearly everyone in the building was in euphoria, on their feet cheering on the historical moment while doing another "Go Leafs Go!" chant for good measure. As for me, I was excited for the win and the playoff berth, but I was in shock as well, not fully realizing what I had just witnessed.

The game's Three Stars were announced and the arena began to empty to commence the party outside. My brother wanted to head home as he had a training to attend in the early morning, but I told him that I wanted to stay a bit longer to soak in the atmosphere. Although I had attended many Leaf games throughout my life, I had never experienced one quite like this one I had just seen.

We finally made our way out of the arena to return home.  As we headed towards Union Station, my brother turned to me and suggested that we go to Maple Leafs Square for a few minutes.  Not having much of a voice left after hours of screaming at the top of my lungs, I wholeheartedly agreed.

This large outdoor space outside Air Canada Centre known as Maple Leafs Square is already filled with hundreds of fans coming together to celebrate the victory and the playoffs. There were cheers, shouting, and a number of "Go Leafs Go" chants ringing all around me.

In the distance, I saw the Rogers Centre glowing in the night sky, which reminded me of the other professional sports teams in the city. Over the past two years, I have been privileged with watching the Blue Jays, Raptors, and TFC each have success in the playoffs and envisioned a time when the Leafs would join in on the post-season fun. Even in that moment, I still couldn't believe the team had achieved the unthinkable.

This thought stayed with me on the subway ride north and as I drove home up Yonge Street. Listening to songs from U2, Green Day, Michael Jackson, and Kendrick Lamar, I kept thinking about everything what had occurred on this night. Although I had been a Leaf fan for most of my life, never had I been treated to such an exciting game.

A team led by rookies Matthews, Nylander, and Mitch Marner provided me with the most exciting season of my life, and it was set to continue into the spring. Just thinking of it nearly brought me to tears of joy and my eagerness for the playoffs to begin only grew stronger.

As I arrived home, reality set in as a thought came into my head that I did not have to think about before:  "How am I going to study for my exams if the playoffs are on?"

"Oh well, I guess I'll have to find a way. Just like how the Leafs team did tonight."

You can follow Michael Mazzei on Twitter @MichaelMazzei3. 


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