In the series that was all but confirmed before the pandemic, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs might still get to dance with each other in the first round of the 2020 NHL Playoffs.
And what a series it would be. Nikita Kucherov, Auston Matthews, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Brayden Point, William Nylander, Victor Hedman, Mitch Marner, and all the way down the line there is high talent and game-breaking personalities going head-to-head. I would be quite entertained by it.
As a fan of both teams, I was preparing to take the high road and hope both teams give us the best hockey we can hope for and whoever wins is out of my control.
Why the Lightning want to see them in the first round
Well, for one, they are the polar opposite of the Columbus Blue Jackets and playing them would mean playing a team of the regular season performance of the Blue Jackets (they were eighth and ninth in the East) but with the playing style that matches the Lightning.
Playing strength vs. strength, there’s a chance the Maple Leafs win, but there’s a better chance the Lightning come out on top. They’re just the better team.
The Maple Leafs Regular Season
The Leafs had a moderately injury-filled season, with Mitch Marner, John Tavares, Andreas Johnsson, and most of the defense falling to injury at various points in the season, especially later in the year for the defense when all of Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, and Cody Ceci were out for over a month.
Here are some numbers (ok, a lot of numbers) comparing the Leafs to the Lightning. Don’t let your eyes roll back here, just look at the ranking if the numbers don’t carry any meaning. Here is where the Leafs and Lightning stack up in every major 5v5 shot metric:
Shot Attempts Share
Lightning: 53% (4th)
Maple Leafs: 52% (7th)
Lightning: 57% (3rd)
Maple Leafs: 50% (16th)
Expected Goals Share
Lightning: 55% (2nd)
Maple Leafs: 52% (10th)
Lightning: 9.6% (1st)
Maple Leafs: 8.6% (10th)
Lightning: .924 (9th)
Maple Leafs: .911 (27th)
On the whole, barring shooting issues for the Leafs, which is often luck-based, the Leafs and Lightning were similar teams this season. That said, the Lightning have a clear advantage in every area of note. Where they’re solidly in the top-tier in the league, top three or five at worst, the Leafs are stuck in the middle of the league and not executing at the same level as the Lightning. This is especially clear when it comes to expected goals, which shows the Leafs failing to get to the dangerous areas on a consistent basis and having to rely on talent from their top players and special teams to get their team over the line most nights.
And here are special teams numbers. The Lightning give and take about four penalties per game in the regular season, with is top-five in the league in calls, whereas the Leafs give and take about three per game, which is bottom-three in the league. Thanks to referee bias, teams tend to get called the same number of penalties for and against per game so how often your team is on special teams is just determined by how dirty the refs think your team is.
Power Play Conversion Rate
Lightning: 23.1% (5th)
Maple Leafs: 23.1% (6th)
Penalty Kill Conversion Rate
Lightning: 81.4% (14th)
Maple Leafs: 77.7% (21st)
Shot Attempts For/Against per 2 minutes
Lightning: 3.3 (11th) / 3.2 (15th)
Maple Leafs: 3.1 (19th) / 3.1 (12th)
Expected Goals For/Against per 2 minutes*
Lightning: 0.21 (20th) / 0.21 (10th)
Maple Leafs: 0.22 (17th) / 0.20 (7th)
Goals For/Against per 2 minutes
Lightning: 0.27 (8th) / 0.23 (17th)
Maple Leafs: 0.28 (6th) / 0.25 (21st)
*There is still work being done on Expected Goals values for the power play that will potentially try to better account for shots from distance as compared to shots and rebounds from in tight, which are more highly valued. Both the Leafs and Lightning attempted to score from the perimeter following pre-shot movement either from a pass or skating into open space. This is a difference from the Leafs dominant power play last year that scored mostly from in front of the net. You can hear more about this topic by our friendenemies at Pension Plan Puppets who did a great podcast on the topic.
On special teams, the Leafs had a better penalty kill than the Lightning, but lost out because of their goaltending being poor. In general, both teams have a better power play than they have a penalty kill, which makes sense considering the immense amounts of talent on both sides.
The Leafs never seem to get calls from the refs, and this could work to the Lightning’s advantage if they’re able to dirty the game up and get some power plays for themselves without the refs reciprocating the same for the Leafs. Cody Ceci took two penalties in the first game in the Qualifying Round from two clumsy plays while the puck was leaving the Leafs zone. He could be a person the Lightning could target to win some man advantages.
For a more visual representation of these sets of numbers for the Leafs and Lightning, I recommend going to Micah Blake McCurdy’s HockeyViz.com where he has shot plots of the Leafs and Lightning at 5v5 and on special teams.
Lightning-Leafs Season Series
The Leafs actually won the season series against the Lightning 2-1 with all three games ending in regulation. Inconsistent with their season, the Leafs won the latter two games thanks to their power play and goaltending.
The Leafs scored five power play goals in the season series, compared to just two for the Lightning. Frederik Andersen was definitely awful in the first game of the series, but he stopped the Lightning during their comeback in the third period of the second game, and completely shut the door for most of the third game.
Continuing the backwards profile of the Leafs against the Lightning vs. everyone else, they usually are a dominant team at 5v5 and struggle everywhere else, but against the Lightning, it was the complete opposite scenario. The Lightning kicked their ass in shots and expected goals in the first two games. They fell behind the Leafs in the third game, but that was probably Toronto’s best game of the season and it’s hard to expect that level of play from them again in the playoffs.
Oct 10th: 7-3 (Return of the Pont)
Brayden Point started the season late after having surgery over the summer, but he came back with a bang in a blowout win over the Leafs in October. He scored two goals and three points on five shots, with his line with Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos scoring five times together. The Leafs have had problems with Boston’s super-line, and the same thing happened here.
Feb 25th: 3-4
The Lightning kicked the Leafs butt up and down the ice when it came to offense, but special teams and goaltending let them down. This was a one-off night where the Leafs got lots of power plays and they capitalized on two of them (Nylander and Tavares).
Mar 10th: 1-2 (last game of the season)
We didn’t know this at the time, but this ended up being the last Lightning game for over four months and the last of the regular season in 2019-20. It was a goalie duel for most of the night, two power play goals for the Leafs was enough to secure the victory (Nylander and Matthews).
How things could go sideways
If the Leafs can learn from the Blue Jackets in how to forecheck and stifle a fast and skilled team, and with the firepower they have — more than Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, and company from last year — it could be a real problem for the Lightning.
Now, I know I just said that if the Leafs get better offensively and defensively they’ll be a better team, and it’s a really obvious thing to say, but it’s more about the style of game the Leafs can implement that could cause the Lightning problems.
That said, I think both teams would be more than welcome to just go strength vs. strength and throw all the offense they can at each other, where at the end, if the two teams are evenly matched enough, the Lightning could see themselves on the losing side.
What the Lightning have added that the Leafs don’t have is the ability to get rough and throw good players off their game. That’s what the entire bottom-six has been designed for. And as we’ve seen with the Leafs vs. Blue Jackets in their first game, if you can throw a player like Mitch Marner off his game, he can become a complete non-factor.
William Nylander has been a killer of the Lightning this season with two goals and three points in the season series for Toronto. His puck control in front of the net and around the boards will be a particular area where the Lightning will want to nail down if they want to shut him down.
Bold Prediction if these two teams match-up
It’d be a shock, but I could see a team earning a shutout in one of the 4-to-7 games.