SIMMONS: Leafs deserved better on this heartbreaking night

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TAMPA – The greatest 26 seconds of John Tavares’ life as Maple Leaf have wiped out nearly 18 years of Toronto hockey confusion and pain.

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Almost.

It was possible. So exciting. That heartbreaking. And so much unlike Leaf defeats in recent playoff years, they deserved a better fate than this. They deserved to advance to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

They all deserved it.

Tavares offered 26 seconds of unforgettable Maple Leafs lore in the closing minute of the second period of a decisive Game 6. Historic game that could and perhaps should have turned the night in favor of the hapless Leafs.

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This was an opportunity to rewrite their own history. This was a deserved opportunity, a game well played and above all well thought out, a loss late in the first overtime, a period largely dominated by the Leafs.

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Now history awaits and Game 7 will take place Saturday night at the Scotiabank Arena and there was a reason for both excitement and suspense. Thrills and excitement: This was playoff hockey at its best, except for the way it ended.

Brayden Point scored at 6:04 PM of the first overtime period to give the Lightning a 4-3 victory from behind over the Maple Leafs, sending this playoff series to a seventh game in the first round. This will be the Leafs’ fourth seventh game in recent history: it’s time for them to win one. It’s time they bury the ghost of 18 years without a performance in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

They deserved it Thursday night.

Winners are not always earned in play-off hockey.

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The two Tavares scores, which came almost out of the blue in the last minute of the second period in a rowdy Amalie Arena, are historic moments for a Leafs franchise that has to write its own. New history. A new beginning.

The goals were right there with Doug Gilmour’s enveloping goal. Right there with the Wendel Clark hat-trick. Right there with Nikolai Borschevsky scoring in extra time and then being unable to explain what just happened.

The goals came a year after Tavares was helped off the ice in the first game of last year’s unexplained play-off defeat to the Montreal Canadiens. His season is over with a concussion, a knee injury and the kind of breathless injury on the ice that is hard to deal with.

And now the Leafs and Lightning head back to Scotiabank Arena for Game 7 on Saturday. The winner gets everything. No time to exhale yet.

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It was such a hockey night. An evening to remember everything except the final score.

This was in many ways a special night for the Leafs and a special night for a player and a team who wanted to change recent history. This series is not against an ordinary team from Montreal. It’s not against a regular Columbus team. These are the two-time Stanley Cup champions from Tampa. The Lightning will not go down without a fight.

The Leafs might have won the game in regular time had it not been for some unfortunate calls in the third period. David Kampf was penalized for high sticking at 8:02 of the period and just 16 seconds later Alex Kerfoot was also penalized. Kerfoot, who had a rough night overall, chased a puck while killing a penalty and while jostling with Tampa star defender Victor Hedman, Kerfoot accidentally knocked Hedman upside down.

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The Leafs were two man short against Nikita Kucherov, Hedman, Steven Stamkos, who will all one day go into the Hall of Fame. Toronto made a valiant effort to close the two-man deficit, but Kucherov scored at 9:20 of the period – the goal that sent Game 6 into extra time.

The Leafs dominated in shots in the overtime period when Auston Matthews crashed onto the ice near the Leafs bench and not long after, Point scored.

The Leafs didn’t score in the first or third period, but in between they scored three goals against Vasilevskiy in the second period, who they had the better of for most of the series.

But it was Tavares’ two goals — he scored three goals in six games, more than he’d scored in a playoff series while playing for Toronto — that seemed monumental to the Leafs captaincy and the Leafs team that set the tone. for a victory to come.

Losing in overtime hurts and so did this loss. Especially with so much going the Leafs way. Especially on a night they might have deserved better.

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