When the Tampa Bay Lightning went up 2-0 on four shots early in the first period of Game 5 against the Maple Leafs, Jason Spezza went to have a word with goalie Jack Campbell. Then in intermission, Spezza stood up in the dressing room and addressed his teammates.
“He’s such a leader, and when he talks, everybody listens to him,” said Campbell. “Personally, I listened and the boys, they responded.”
No one is saying exactly what Spezza said, but the results speak for themselves. Campbell settled down. The Maple Leafs rallied to a 4-3 win, giving themselves a chance at their first playoff series win since 2004 with a victory Thursday in Tampa.
“Spezza has been around longer than anyone, so Spezza has a lot of history,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “He’s been through a lot, he’s seen a lot. And he also knows that he doesn’t have a lot of time left.
“So he’s all-in on this opportunity. But he’s also all-in in trying to help push the others to try to get to where we need to get to. He’s doing everything he can to try to will our team to success.”
Spezza is far from alone in his race against time. Spezza, Wayne Simmonds and Mark Giordano have combined to play 3,291 regular-season games, and an additional 176 playoff games. All three are local products — Spezza from Mississauga, Simmonds from Scarborough, Giordano from North York.
None of these three Maple Leafs have their name engraved on the Stanley Cup. And that’s what keeps them going.
“It’s very important for me,” says Spezza, the oldest of the three at 38, just a few months older than Giordano. “You play your whole life to trying to win the Stanley Cup. And obviously, Father Time’s catching up to everybody. So you don’t want to waste chances.”
Spezza was part of the last two Maple Leaf collapses, failing to beat Columbus in 2020 or Montreal in 2021. Thus the nature of Spezza’s first intermission call for urgency.
“I loved the response. There was great desperation from our group,” said Spezza. “We recognized the situation we were in and had a great push back. We had opportunities last year, we didn’t get it done. We know that. We’ve given ourselves two chances to win a series. We need to play with that urgency.”
The Leafs have three veterans on their team who have played 1,000 NHL games but haven’t won the Stanley Cup. Two of them are Wayne Simmonds (left) and Jason Spezza.
Spezza made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007, when his Ottawa Senators bowed out in five games to the Anaheim Ducks. Back then, it looked like the Senators were built to have a long run of playoff success. But they only made the playoffs in four of the next seven seasons, and didn’t win another round. Spezza was traded to Dallas, where he got to the second round twice. He has had two first-round exits in Toronto.
Along the way, Spezza morphed into more a role player than the go-to scorer of his prime. He and Simmonds share time on the Leafs’ fourth line; Spezza is called upon if offence is needed, Simmonds more for brawn.
That physical aspect has made Simmonds valuable to every team he’s played for, and a big reason why the Philadelphia Flyers demanded he be included in a blockbuster trade with the Los Angeles Kings, along with Brayden Schenn, in a 2011 deal that sent Mike Richards to the Kings. Richards became a key part of two Cup runs in Los Angeles, in 2012 and 2014. Simmonds could only watch as the team that drafted him won the Cup without him.
“Obviously, it was awful,” Simmonds says. “But, at the same time, I had a lot of great friends on that team. Still do. So I was extremely happy for those guys. But it feels pretty crappy that I couldn’t be a part of it.”
His Flyers teams made the playoffs a mere four times in his eight years there, winning a single round.
“It’s a thing when you’re young. You think, ‘OK,’ and have your summer and go on about your business (when you lose). And you don’t really think about it because you’ve got plenty of years left in you,” Simmonds says. “When you get to this point in your career, it’s, ‘Holy crap, I haven’t won yet.’ So you put everything you have into it. Moments like this, they don’t come all the time.”
Joe Thornton, at 42, is the oldest player in the Stanley Cup tournament without his name on the trophy, chasing it this year with the Florida Panthers. Edmonton’s Mike Smith, at 41, is the oldest active goalie without a Cup.
Steven Stamkos, 10 years younger than Thornton, has raised the Cup twice.
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“It’s the best feeling you can have as an athlete in terms of achieving your ultimate dream,” Stamkos says. “There’s just so many emotions that go into it. And it is very addictive because you don’t have that feeling very often. There’s only certain moments in your life …
“And, listen, I tell people this all the time, it was the hardest thing that you’re ever going to have to do. The sacrifice you have to put in as a team, as an individual; there’s moments there where it’s easy to just say it’s too hard, but it’s the teams that can go past that and maybe even surprise yourself a little bit that get to the end.”
That is the goal of everyone in the playoffs, so close and still so far. Giordano has been chasing it too.
“I’ve been on a lot of teams that haven’t made the playoffs, going through a rebuild in Calgary,” he says. “At that point in my career, you don’t really think time’s running out. But now I realize how quick it goes by. And this is a huge opportunity for myself and for our team.”
The Leafs need not look any further for motivation to try to win the Cup than each other’s faces. The time is now.
“When you get to this point, you don’t know how much longer you have,” Simmonds says. “And you lay everything out there, every single shift, every second that you get because you don’t know if you’re going to get another opportunity to be able to even play in the playoffs again.”