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Maple Leafs clinch on back of unlikely hero

Curtis McElhinney makes crucial save in relief to help Toronto return to Stanley Cup Playoffs

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- This was not the way Curtis McElhinney pictured it, even though -- as a backup goaltender -- he knew this was how it would have to go. His moment would have to come with a disaster of a performance or a mishap or an injury or some other catastrophic event.

That happened on Saturday, a moment that left Air Canada Centre stunned and silent and prayerful. Frederik Andersen, the goaltender who had stabilized the crease for the Toronto Maple Leafs this season, went down and out, leaving the ice accompanied by a trainer after taking the knee of Tom Sestito to his head, bound for the dressing room, not to re-emerge.

So, in the biggest of moments, in the most crucial of times, with the fate and faith of the Maple Leafs resting on his shoulders, the oldest member of a team known for its youth steadied the city of Toronto and the Maple Leafs. He watched an own-goal dribble past him, one that could have been the difference, and yet he was there with his left pad to rob Sidney Crosby with 48.3 seconds remaining and a win on the line.

On a rookie-studded team, it was McElhinney -- at 33 years old -- who quite literally saved the day, as everything that Toronto wanted and wasn't quite sure it would get happened, with a 5-3 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins that clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"It's tough. He's been the heart and soul of this team, playing the amount of games that he has so far," McElhinney said of Andersen. "He's been a leader. I don't think you ever want to see him get hurt in a situation like that. At the same point, it's something that, as far as backup goalies go, you dream about it."

[RELATED: Penguins-Maple Leafs game recap]

The dream came true. For him. For his teammates. For Toronto.

"You could feel it on the bench, the emotions, the fans, the atmosphere in there," defenseman Jake Gardiner said. "We're really excited right now. … That was probably the loudest I've heard it. You look back on four years ago with Boston. That same feeling comes back."

Echoed center Auston Matthews, "It means everything."

There was so much that happened on Saturday, so it would have been easy to ignore any one thing. By the end of the night, the goal that opened the scoring -- by former Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel -- seemed barely a memory.

To recap: After Kessel made it 1-0 at 6:11 of the first period, James van Riemsdyk tied it 1-1 29 seconds later, followed by a go-ahead goal by Tyler Bozak on a beauty of a pass by William Nylander at 3:30 of the second on the power play to make it 2-1. Crosby tied it 2-2 on the power play at 7:55, which was what set up a Jake Guentzel goal that could have been a heartbreaker.

Guentzel had already flubbed a shot at a wide-open net earlier, and so it seemed to be karma that a goal that went off the foot of Nikita Zaitsev and off the skate of Gardiner would be attributed to him when it slipped past McElhinney at 6:51 of the third to make it 3-2.

It appeared, to judge from the reaction of Maple Leafs fans, to be what they had really expected.

But Kasperi Kapanen scored his first NHL goal and first NHL point at 14:30, touching off a raucous celebration -- "That," van Riemsdyk said, "was unbelievable -- and less than three minutes later, at 17:12, it was the stick blade of Connor Brown deflecting a Gardiner shot to take the lead. Then, after that massive save on Crosby, Matthews scored into the empty net with four seconds remaining for his 40th goal of the season, and then all of Toronto could take a breath again.

But, really, who was breathing?

They were too busy screaming and cheering and chanting. Too busy celebrating a win and a playoff spot that had seemed to be slipping out of their grasp after having been all but wrapped up.

Video: PIT@TOR: McElhinney robs Crosby to preserve late lead

"It's kind of funny: I feel like that game was kind of a good representation of our season to date," van Riemsdyk said. "Just kept playing, kept fighting. Obviously got down early and just kept finding a way."

All the way into the playoffs.

"I'm proud of the guys," coach Mike Babcock said. "I'm excited for the guys. They've done a real good job. I told the coaches at the start of the year, if we got in, it was going to be tomorrow in Game 82. I thought we'd have to really crawl in at the end. So we got in one game ahead of schedule.

"But to be honest with you, I didn't know the kids could be this good."

It was not all a celebration for the Maple Leafs. After the game, Babcock had no report on Andersen, though he said that ideally the goaltender would start on Sunday in another crucial game for Toronto. If the Maple Leafs can get at least a point against the Columbus Blue Jackets, they would move up into third place in the Atlantic Division, earning themselves a matchup with the Ottawa Senators instead of the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference First Round.

But that concern could wait until the next day.

For now, the Maple Leafs were going to continue past the regular season, for the first time since 2012-13 and the second time since 2003-04, and one year after they finished last in the NHL. They had gotten to this point ahead of expectations, on the backs of 10 rookies, including Matthews, Nylander, Brown, Kapanen and Mitchell Marner. And, yes, too, on the back of their most unlikely hero, the backup goaltender brought in from Columbus in January off the waiver wire.

"I thought [McElhinney] had to make some big saves there at the end," Babcock said. "He wasn't called on to make a ton, but he was called on to make big ones. Sometimes that's tougher in a big game that's important to our players and our team, but our city as well."

McElhinney was there to relieve Andersen. He was there when the buzzer sounded, and everyone could finally, really believe.

"When that fifth goal went in there, it was like the roof was going to come off," McElhinney said. "It sends chills down your spine."

Video: Brown's late goal propels Maple Leafs into playoffs

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