Nobody ever tweeted about a Florida Panthers playoff series victory before last night, when Carter Verhaeghe, off a pass from Claude Giroux – trade deadline acquisition and bringer of tons of vicarious Panthers fans from Philadelphia – lifted Florida to a 4-3 overtime win over the Capitals, and a 4-2 win in the series.
The Panthers’ victory meant a couple of things. First, although we’re still set up for a dream hockey weekend, we fell one short of tying 1992’s record of half a dozen Game 7s in a round. It also means that the Panthers no longer have the NHL’s longest drought between winning postseason series. Now that Florida is off the schneid after 24 years, the new team that’s gone the longest without a handshake line that wasn’t followed by trudging into the offseason is… with a 16-year gap since their last win in a series… you already know it because of the headline, but take a minute and pretend you don’t for the drama…
Yes, the Toronto Maple Leafs, whose last win in a playoff series was so long ago, it came in a year when the Ottawa Senators were actually in the playoffs, 2004. In the Eastern semifinals that followed, the home team between the Leafs and Flyers won each of the first five games, then Philly wrapped up the series in overtime in Game 6.
Toronto then did not even make the playoffs until after a pair of lockouts, finally returning to the Stanley Cup tournament in the shortened 2013 season, where they valiantly came back from 3-1 down in the series, took a 4-1 lead on goals by Phil Kessel and Nazem Kadri early in the third period, and you know the rest.
The Leafs then endured a rebuild, got Auston Matthews in a totally-not-rigged draft lottery, and made it back to the playoffs in 2017, where they made a good showing against the Capitals, falling in six games in a series where all but Game 4 (a 5-4 Washington win) went to overtime.
2018: Came back from 3-1 down against the Bruins again, only blew a 4-3 lead in Game 7 this time, lost 7-4.
2019: Managed not to get into a 3-1 hole against the Bruins, instead taking a 3-2 lead in the series before losing Game 6 at home and getting waxed, 5-1, in the decider in Boston.
2020: In the bubble – in Toronto – lost a best-of-five series to the Blue Jackets, who had won 33 of 70 games during the regular season.
2021: Took a 3-1 series lead against a Canadiens team that won 24 of 56 regular-season games, and against whom the Leafs had gone 7-2-1 in the regular season. Although Games 5 and 6 went to overtime, Toronto did not lead in either one, and sure as hell didn’t lead in the 3-1 Game 7, when William Nylander only scored after Montreal had already scored an empty-net goal to ice the series.
And now here we are, with the Florida Panthers having moved on, and the Leafs facing the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, in a series Toronto has led, 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2. What could possibly go wrong?
There’s one other bit of history here. The Maple Leafs haven’t beaten the defending champions since they took down the Habs in six games in the 1967 Stanley Cup Final. So, all of that stuff about the Leafs’ first-round misery? Either we’re adding to it tonight, or they’re finally winning the Cup.
Over in the NBA, after not having a single first-round series go the distance, had all of its conference semifinals reach Game 6, and Friday night, as on Thursday, one title contender moved on while another couldn’t close the deal.
The defending champion Bucks need to go back to Boston for a decider after squandering their chance to return to the conference finals in a 108-95 home loss. The night’s other home team did hold serve and finished taking down the higher seed, though it’s not as if Golden State was really the underdog against Memphis. The Grizzlies gave it everything they had without Ja Morant, but dropped a 110-96 verdict as the vulnerable, but still elite, three-time champs pulled away with a 32-19 fourth quarter.
That still gives a sports weekend with seven Game 7s, so buckle in, because it’s going to be a lot of fun – and, in fact, a record in its own right, albeit one that feels a lot more made up.
Meanwhile, in Arkansas…