Expectations and passion for Maple Leafs stays high at public tailgate

·3 min read

TORONTO — Fans lined up for hours before puck drop just to stand outside Scotiabank Arena and watch the Toronto Maple Leafs face the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Owen Das from Markham, Ont., was one of the first fans to enter the tailgate party in a cordoned off courtyard west of the Maple Leafs arena. Wearing a plastic gold chain with the team's logo around his neck, Das said he was ready to see Toronto advance to the second round of the NHL playoffs for the first time since 2004.

"Oh, I hope we go all the way. It's our year this year," said Das as he entered the official tailgate with a group of his friends, with one cutting in to say he's eager to face the rival Boston Bruins in the next round.

"We're coming for that revenge, Boston! You've been ruining my childhood since 2004."

Toronto held a commanding 3-1 series lead over Tampa Bay heading into Game 5 of their best-of-seven series on Thursday. The winner of the series would go on to face Boston, who won the Presidents Trophy as the team with the most points during the NHL's regular season.

The Maple Leafs last won a playoff series in 2004 when they dispatched the Ottawa Senators in seven games. Toronto has struggled in the post-season since, including an infamous Game 7 meltdown against Boston in the first round of the 2013 playoffs.

The team is 0-9 in opportunities to eliminate a post-season opponent since 2018, while the Lightning hoisted the Cup in 2020 and 2021 before losing to Colorado in last year's final.

"I expect big things. Boys are on a roll," said Chris Dunn, who came with his family from Shelburne, Ont., to take in the tailgate party and watch the game. "It's going to be tight but we're as deep as we've ever been.

"If it is ever going to be a year, this is it."

A spokeswoman for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment said that its ticketed tailgate area was at capacity for Thursday's game, with approximately 5,000 fans enjoying the space with thousands more crowded along Bremner Boulevard.

"Game 1 I couldn't get tickets," said Sunny, a fan from Halton, Ont., who noted Toronto was routed 7-3 when he was not present outside the arena. "But since Game 2 I'm 3-for-3 right now so I really hope that we can win a fourth with me here."

Toronto police said before the game that there would be a visible police presence in the area surrounding Scotiabank Arena to ensure public safety and minimize disruption.

The force says there will also be a number of road restrictions in effect at the end of the game to manage pedestrian and car traffic.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 27, 2023.

John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press