Late in the first period, as things were threatening to come together for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the puck fell at Mitch Marner’s feet. Marner was in position. The Tampa Bay Lightning goalie was not.
Marner wound up to stroke it into the empty net. That’s when his stick exploded.
It occurred to you that however this series ends for the Leafs, they shouldn’t fire anyone. Instead, what they need to do is go on a hiring spree. Of exorcists.
You could feel every scintilla of good fortune vacate Scotiabank Arena. If there is a curse on this team, it has rarely been so palpable as it was in that moment. You knew how this one was going to end up.
And then, oddly, the Leafs won 4-3.
They didn’t just win it. While Tampa was kicking dirt in on it, Toronto climbed out of its own postseason grave and then refused to be shoved back in. It was a statement win from a team that doesn’t issue statements.
Toronto now leads the best-of-seven playoff series 3-2 over the defending champions.
In the way of such things, the spark plug of the game was the Invisible Man from the first four games – Leafs captain John Tavares. And defenceman Justin Holl got an assist. Everything bad is suddenly good. There may yet be joy in Mudville.
The come-from-behind victory will only be remarkable if the Leafs can close this thing out. Local curse talk will be trending at all-time highs on Sunday if this doesn’t work out the way the Leafs hope.
But let’s assume for a moment that it’s possible.
If so, when they do a half-dozen insufferable documentaries about how Toronto got itself out of the deepest rut in professional sport, Tuesday night will figure large in that discussion.
Toronto can close the series out on Thursday in Tampa. If that doesn’t happen, it can take its mulligan and come home on Saturday. The Leafs are one win away from their first playoff series victory since 2004.
Ahead of the game, Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said it was at this point that the series would become “about attrition more than anything.”
Hasn’t he had enough attrition already?
If not, Tampa was ready with some.
Once again, it was a penalty that got the fire started. An especially stupid one – too many men. And it was Tampa that did it.
But Toronto is the place where early inflection points go to die. The Leafs stroked it around for two minutes like they were trying to wear grooves in the ice. Thirty seconds after the penalty expired, a puck dribbled out to Steven Stamkos standing alone in the Leafs zone: 1-0.
Toronto decided to test out this whole ‘dumb penalty equals change of momentum’ idea by taking one itself: 2-0 Tampa.
At that point, all the early atmosphere leaked out of the building. I’ve been to more swinging funerals. In fairness, my people are Irish. But still.
Even when things broke in the Leafs’ favour, they had a way of taking the air out of the building. William Nylander popped out of the penalty box just as the puck was rolling around the boards to him. It was a clear breakaway at speed for Toronto’s silkiest player in open space. Nylander missed the net.
It was on a subsequent Leafs power play that Marner’s stick disintegrated.
Because the Leafs can’t trust their own crowd to cheer, every facet of the Game Ops set-up is built around scolding people into speaking up. A bit like your mother, but with a better sound system. It’s to be expected that people will occasionally go rogue.
After a few more minutes of watching Leafs pass off the puck like it’s radioactive, the audience began chanting at their own team: “Shoot. The. Puck.”
The Leafs stats after the first period – two breakaways, three power plays, four shots on goal. Just like they draw it up. In soccer.
Because it worked so well the first time, the Lightning started off the second period with another too-many-men penalty. Tampa doesn’t need more coaches. It needs one dependable person with a hand clicker.
The crowd had started in with that low rumbling noise that often precedes a total breakdown in order. An instant later, a Nylander shot was tipped in by Tavares.
Tavares has taken a yard of abuse this series. Somehow, the biggest free-agent signing in recent Leafs history has become the most reliable whipping post for fan grievance.
But it’s easy to be forgiven in Toronto. Just do one right thing more recently than a hundred wrong ones.
That goal tilted the ice in Toronto’s favour. All the things it had not been able to do in the first period – get bodies to the net, find lanes, shoot the puck in a straight line at the target – were now doable. For stretches, you saw the instinctive offensive ease the regular-season Leafs are known for.
But now it was Tampa goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy’s time to shine.
The Conn Smythe winner from last year’s playoffs has not been a story in this one, but he was at his impenetrable best as the Lightning wobbled in the second period. At the other end, Leafs goalie Jack Campbell seemed to have recovered from his Game 4 yips.
As the period wound down, Auston Matthews said hello to Mikhail Sergachev with such enthusiasm that Sergachev decided to lie down on the ice for a few minutes afterward.
For the first time in this series, we were in for a close one.
The festival of penalties continued to start the third. Toronto got a dinky one. Tampa got a less dinky one seconds later.
At 4-on-4, Tavares looped around behind the goal for so long that he drew the entire Tampa team to him magnetically. That left Morgan Rielly with the freedom Marner had had two periods earlier. His stick stayed intact. Tie game.
While they were announcing the goal, Nylander put Toronto in the lead. After Tampa climbed back into it, Matthews put the Lightning down again with six minutes remaining.
In both cases, no one had to be reminded to cheer.