The third period of the Lightning-Maple Leafs Game 5 on its own could've merited at least a couple separate posts, but it was so crazy and so much was at stake for Toronto that as much of it as possible needed to be collectively summarized here.
But just before that final 20 minutes and the culmination of the Leafs' stunning, uncharacteristic rally for a 4-3 win, it's important to understand a key moment that happened before. I love Auston Matthews as a hockey player, but wrong is wrong. You don't launch yourself into an unsuspecting opponent and smash them into the boards. That's what Matthews did here to Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev late in the second period.
I'm inferring that it was at least somewhat in retaliation to what happened in November, when Sergachev nailed Matthews' top running mate Mitch Marner in the head and got suspended for two games:
I get that the Toronto faithful were excited about how Game 5 was turning. After being embarrassed 7-3 by the Lightning the other night, and seeing the Leafs fall behind 2-0 early in what had the makings of yet another epic choke job in the playoffs, those in attendance were riding the wave of ecstasy that came with the home team rallying from that HORRENDOUS first period to wrest back the momentum.
Still, don't Leafs fans know by now that the hockey gods absolutely despise their existence? Chanting "MVP!" while an opponent writhes in pain on the ice — to be somewhat fair, Sergachev wound up fine and continued playing — isn't exactly the way to pay tribute to the higher powers that be.
I was convinced Matthews and the Leafs would be punished in heartbreaking fashion, as some sort of karmic comeuppance almost always ensues once something like this happens.
Instead, the complete opposite occurred. The Leafs are used to being pushed around, kicked while they're down, and straight-up blowing it in the playoffs. Despite pissing off the two-time defending champion Lightning HARD before the final period, the Leafs scored twice in a little over a minute to take a 3-2 lead!!
Then OH NO! Ryan McDonagh, who'd scored just one goal in 70 prior postseason games for Tampa Bay, drove home an absolute BULLET to the top shelf past Jack Campbell to knot the score at three.
In a stunning plot twist — and again, in spite of some dubious prior actions in the form of a dirty check — Matthews and Marner had the last laugh. The man who led the NHL with 60 goals during the regular season was on the spot for a rebound off Marner's shot and slid in the game-winner past Andrei Vasilevskiy:
To get outshot 14-3 to start the evening in front of your own fans and go down 2-0, looking utterly lifeless, and then pulling this shit off? I don't know how you could feel better as a Leafs fan right now.
Although the series heads back to Tampa for Game 6 and the Lightning have so much more positive playoff experience on their side, there's a great chance Toronto will avoid its sixth straight one-and-done. Everyone's been waiting for them to get over the hump. Even taking into account 2019's Game 7 against the Bruins when they fell short, you could argue Tuesday was the Leafs' biggest playoff game in roughly two decades, given the opponent and years of prior postseason shortcomings. Bottom line, they fucking got the "W".
This could be a massive turning point in their history if they can finish off the Cup-tested Lightning. Or, you know, it's just prolonging some seriously sadistic divine intervention from the hockey gods that'll leave the Leafs one win shy of the second round yet again.