John Tavares had dreams of suiting up for the Maple Leafs.
When the opportunity to come home arrived, he couldn’t pass up the chance to join the team he cheered for as a kid just down the road.
Despite a number of painful moments and plenty of tough questions, a night like Saturday made it all worth it.
Toronto ultimately exorcised its playoff demons — and is off to the second round of the NHL playoffs.
Tavares scored at 4:36 of overtime and Ilya Samsonov made 31 saves as the Leafs downed the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 to win their series 4-2 and advance in the post-season for the first time in nearly two decades.
“Special being a Maple Leaf,” said the 32-year-old from Oakville, Ont. “Growing up in the [Greater Toronto Area], you get a sense of the history and tradition and what it means to the city, to the people and how big and how incredible Leafs Nation is.
“To get a big one tonight is really nice, especially with some of the disappointments.”
The Leafs captain, who signed with Toronto in 2018 after bolting the New York Islanders in free agency, threw a puck in front that went off Lightning defenseman Darren Raddysh’s skate and in for his fourth goal of the series to send Toronto players spilling off the bench in ecstasy.
The emotions ran the gamut for an organization that hasn’t tasted playoff success in a generation under an intense microscope.
Relief was right up there alongside the jubilation.
“Great feeling when the puck goes in,” said Leafs blueliner Morgan Rielly, who scored in OT in Game 3, tied Game 4 late and was in front of Tampa’s net on the series clincher. “For it to be Johnny, I think is just extremely special.
“It’s a mix of being relieved, being extremely happy, being grateful.”
Auston Matthews had the goal in regulation for the Leafs, who lost to Tampa in seven matches last spring.
“I’ve been here seven years,” Matthews said. “It’s huge mentally for us just to get that monkey off the back.”
Steven Stamkos replied for the Lightning, who saw their streak of three consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup final come to an end. Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 20 shots.
“We played well enough to win this series,” Tampa head coach Jon Cooper said. “Anybody that watched the series would agree with that.”
“At some point they were going to get a break,” he added of the Leafs. “It sucks it was against us.”
Toronto last made the NHL’s final eight in 2004 — before the league introducing a salary cap, before Twitter was launched, and just over four months after Paul Martin became Canada’s 21st prime minister — when they defeated the Ottawa Senators in seven games.
Joe Nieuwendyk was the hero that night with two goals on a shaky Patrick Lalime. Toronto would go on to lose a second-round matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers when Jeremy Roenick scored the clinching goal in overtime of Game 6.
The wait for another series triumph in hockey’s biggest market would last 6,948 days.
The Leafs have seen 268 skaters, 33 goalies, seven coaches and six general managers pass through the doors since.