The Toronto Maple Leafs are an Original Six franchise that have enjoyed an immense amount of success throughout their history. They’ve won a whopping 13 Stanley Cup championships.
But lately, they haven’t come anywhere close to reaching the mountaintop of the sport. It’s actually been the exact opposite.
The Maple Leafs have made first-round exits in each of the last six Stanley Cup Playoffs. They haven’t won a playoff series since the 2003-04 season, when they reached the Eastern Conference semifinals. Taking the postseason struggles of the last two decades into account makes Thursday’s Game 5 a must-win situation for the Maple Leafs against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It’s all because of how all too familiar they are with the Lightning.
In the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Maple Leafs held a 3-2 series lead before the Lightning won the final two games to take the series, which included a close 2-1 result in Game 7. Entering Thursday night’s Game 5, the Maple Leafs have all of the momentum. They erased a 4-1 third-period deficit and Alexander Kerfoot tipped home the game-winning goal just 4:14 into overtime to clinch a 5-4 win in Game 4.
The Maple Leafs can’t afford to take the Lightning lightly and need to deliver the knockout blow in Game 5. The Lightning have been to the past three Stanley Cup Finals and have won two of them. They’re a veteran team that has been in these types of situations before.
To paint a clear picture of why Toronto needs to end this series as soon as possible, let’s take a look back at how the Maple Leafs’ playoff woes have played out of late — starting with what happened six seasons ago.
2017: Eliminated by Capitals in first round
The Washington Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy during the 2016-17 season and were the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Despite being the second Wild Card team in the East, the Maple Leafs actually held a 2-1 series lead after Tyler Bozak scored the game-winning goal in overtime to put Toronto up in the series. But that was the last time that the Maple Leafs would taste victory in the series. The Capitals won the next three games. Marcus Johansson eliminated the Maple Leafs 6:31 into the overtime period as he scored his second goal of the contest in Game 6. Every game in the series was decided by a single goal and it was just the third series in NHL history in which five games went to overtime.
2018: Eliminated by Bruins in first round
Much like the 2023 postseason, the Maple Leafs found themselves in a 2-3 matchup against the Boston Bruins. The Bruins dominated the Maple Leafs in the opening two games of the series as they outscored Toronto, 12-4. Boston went up 3-1 before the Maple Leafs came roaring back thanks to strong performances from goaltender Frederik Andersen, who recorded 74 saves in Games 5 and 6 to help even the series. In Game 7, the Maple Leafs held a 4-3 lead heading into the third period. Then the Bruins scored four unanswered goals in the final 20 minutes to win, 7-4.
2019: Eliminated by Bruins in first round
Just one year later, the Maple Leafs took on the Bruins in the opening round of the postseason yet again. The Maple Leafs had finished third in the Atlantic Division and lost to the Bruins in three of their four regular-season meetings. Still, the teams were evenly matched throughout the first five games of their opening-round series. But after alternating the first four games, the Bruins outscored the Maple Leafs, 9-3, over the final two of the series to eliminate Toronto for the second consecutive campaign. Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask stopped 32 of the 33 shots that he faced in Game 7 and Boston earned a convincing 5-1 victory.
2020: Eliminated by Blue Jackets in qualifying round
The 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs had a strange configuration that was brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, which heavily affected the NHL’s regular season and postseason schedules. When the regular season was cut short, Toronto found themselves matched up with the Columbus Blue Jackets in the qualifying round. The Maple Leafs were the No. 8 seed while the Blue Jackets were the No. 9 seed. The series started out with a pair of shutouts as Blue Jackets netminder Joonas Korpisalo had one in Game 1 and Andersen responded with one of his own in Game 2 to even the series. Eventually, Korpisalo ended up shutting down the Maple Leafs in Game 5 in a 3-0 triumph, which ended Toronto’s season.
2021: Eliminated by Canadiens in first round
The 2021 season was shortened to just 56 regular season contests due to the residuals effects of the schedule being pushed back from the COVID-19 pandemic in the previous year. The Maple Leafs finished in first place in the North Division with 77 points while the Canadiens came in fourth place with just 59 points. After dropping Game 1, the Maple Leafs ripped off three consecutive victories and outscored the Canadiens 11-2 during those contests. The Canadiens rallied to win Games 5 and 6 in overtime to force a winner-take-all Game 7. Canadiens star goaltender Carey Price recorded 30 saves and completely shut down the Maple Leafs in a 3-1 win to take the series
During this six-year stretch we are highlights, this is probably the most deflating series loss for the Maple Leafs. .
2022: Eliminated by Lightning in first round
The most recent playoff blunder came during the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs in a series that the Maple Leafs had every chance to win. They earned 115 points in the regular season, but the two teams did split their four regular season contests. Toronto opened the series fairly strong by winning two of the first three games, including a convincing 5-0 shutout in Game 1. After falling 7-3 in Game 4, the Maple Leafs rose to the occasion in Game 5 with a 4-3 victory on their home ice. Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly tallied third-period goals to give Toronto a huge advantage in the series.
The Maple Leafs rallied back from a two-goal deficit in Game 6 to force overtime, but Brayden Point got the last laugh as he scored to force a Game 7. Despite playing at home, Lightning forward Nick Paul proved to be the star of the show as he scored both of his team’s goals in a 2-1 triumph. Following this loss, the Maple Leafs have now lost eight consecutive playoff. Can that drought end on Thursday night?