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Who in the Atlantic would the Tampa Bay Lightning want to play in the first round?

No news on Sunday, so let’s talk about playoff matchups

2018 Honda NHL All-Star Game - Atlantic v Metropolitan
TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 28: (L-R) Brad Marchand #63 of the Boston Bruins, Brayden Point #21 of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Jack Eichel #15 of the Buffalo Sabres, Auston Matthews #34 of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Nikita Kucherov #86 of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Aleksander Barkov #16 of the Florida Panthers celebrate Kucherov’s goal during the 2018 Honda NHL All-Star Game between the Atlantic Division and the Metropolitan Division at Amalie Arena on January 28, 2018 in Tampa, Florida.
Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

It’s officially April and the Stanley Cup Playoffs are less than a month away. The Tampa Bay Lightning are one of four teams all-but confirmed to make it to round one in the Atlantic Division alongside the Florida Panthers, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Boston Bruins. Ignoring the Metro for a minute, of these three potential opponents, I’d like to know who the Lightning would like to face the most. They’re going to have to play one of them at the end of the day.

Regular Season Head-to-Head

I decided to pick the last four years of data in order to get at least seven games against the Leafs because of last year’s different divisions.

  • vs. Florida: wins: 11-8, goals: 65-64
  • vs. Toronto: wins: 5-4, goals: 32-22
  • vs. Boston: wins: 7-4, goals: 34-33

None of these teams are easy outs, and all match up pretty much even with the Lightning in recent history. The Leafs have been a lot tougher to beat in recent meetings between the two teams (the next one being tonight), as are the Panthers who have a winning record against the Lightning the past two years. It is also true in recent years the Lightning have cared less about the regular season and turned it on in the playoffs where it matters. And why shouldn’t they when the top-four in the Atlantic have been a lock for the better part of a decade.

So the natural next step is to ask how have the Lightning fared in the playoffs against these teams?

Playoffs Head-to-Head

  • vs. Florida: 4-2 series win in 2021, goals: 24-17
  • vs. Boston: 4-1 series wins in 2020 and 2018, goals: 39-25
  • vs. Toronto: nothing...yet

The formula against Boston seems pretty straightforward: win the first game, let them win the second game, and then sweep the rest of the season. The Bruins have always put up only a bit of a fight at the beginning of a series against Tampa before essentially rolling over in the end. A big asset of the Lightning in these series is they have the ability to fight back, or not get goaded, as well as a lethal power play to make those penalties sting.

I also wonder if the Lightning losing their “soft” identity in the eyes of the refs and league has also helped here in keeping the Bruins in check. It’s certainly been a problem for the Leafs, who have lost in seven games to the Bruins three separate times in the last eight years. That’s also all I have to say about the Leafs here.

Against Florida, the Lightning have only played one series, and it has only gotten more brutal between the teams since. The headline from that series was the Panthers unable to get reliable goaltending while Andrei Vasilevskiy shut the door at the other end. This year things seem a little better for the Panthers, so it’ll be a bit more of a test. If Vasilevskiy and the defense can handle the Panthers offense, they’ll be in good shape.

5v5, Power Play, and Penalty Kill

5v5 Expected Goals Rate (offense and defense combined):

  • Tampa Bay: 6th
  • Florida: 2nd
  • Toronto: 4th
  • Boston: 1st

Yeah, four of the top six teams at 5v5 are in our division. Isn’t that awesome? The Rangers, by the way, are 25th in this metric. The Bruins are doing this mostly because of their best-in-the-league defense. The Panthers with their best-in-the-league offense. The Leafs by being in the top quarter of the league in both. The Lightning are right there with the Leafs, but have a slightly better defense and worse offense.

Power Play Expected Offense

  • Tampa Bay: 12th
  • Florida: 16th
  • Toronto: 2nd
  • Boston: 8th

Don’t look now, but the Leafs have by far the best power play in this division. They’ve massively underperformed in the past few years, but they’ve figured it out this year with Matthews, Nylander, Tavares, and Marner all working in a fluid arrangement. Luckily, they get the fewest power plays in the league, and I don’t expect it to get better in the playoffs.

The Bruins are next, but they have a pretty containable power play. It’s not going to blow anyone out of the water. The Panthers are very bad on the power play for a team of their calibre because they can’t stop taking point shots. Maybe Claude Giroux helps them there.

Penalty Kill Expected Defense

  • Tampa Bay: 8th
  • Florida: 15th
  • Toronto: 3rd
  • Boston: 5th

Don’t look now, but the Leafs also have the best penalty kill in the league. Not only do they give up very few chances, but they’re also the leaders in shorthanded chances and goals. You can’t give them a puck battle high in the offensive zone, or their forwards will run the other way. And if they don’t score, they’ll waste a lot of time.

The Bruins and the Lightning are comparably good against each other, with the Panthers once again lagging behind significantly.

Verdict

Could this be the Leafs year they get out of the first round? You’d be a brave person to bet on them doing it — not even their fans will believe it until they see it. I think this year they finally have the defense to compete, but it’ll all come down to between the ears. Will Marner flop again? Can he be effective in the playoffs? Is the goaltending capable, or are they going to be like the Panthers or Hurricanes when the Lightning faced them last year?

On paper, the Panthers have a great 5v5 team and very little to hang their hats on when it comes to special teams. The Lightning can beat that with good counter strategies and goaltending. That said, the Panthers are nasty when they play the Lightning and they might have goaltending this year. They also got some power play help at the deadline. Tough to say...

For me, bring on the Big Bad Bruins if I’m the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Bolts can play down to their level, both in terms of getting physical and playing a shutdown defensive game. The special teams are beatable, and I’d take Vasilevskiy over either goalie the Bruins have right now. To be fair, I’d take Vasy over any goalie in the league anyway. The Lightning have the track record, they’ve made the Bruins roll over twice now. They can do it again.

Poll

Who do you want in the first round? Vote and leave a comment!

This poll is closed

  • 16%
    Florida Panthers
    (27 votes)
  • 29%
    Toronto Maple Leafs
    (47 votes)
  • 54%
    Boston Bruins
    (88 votes)
162 votes total Vote Now