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Series Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning Toronto Maple Leafs

It’s going to be a test for both teams.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

It seems like we’ve been circling around this match-up for the last three or four seasons, doesn’t it? Ever since the Toronto Maple Leafs emerged from their rebuild with Auston Matthews at the forefront we’ve been waiting to see how they would do in a head-to-head playoff series with the Tampa Bay Lightning and their dynamic offense.

Well, we finally got it and it should be a blast. The First Round Blues vs. The Threepeat. Matthews vs. Kucherov. Marner vs. Point. Steven Stamkos vs. his favorite childhood team. Leaf fans vs. their sanity. William Nylander vs. this photo:

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this series is that the Tampa Bay Lightning, the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions, will be underdogs when the puck drops later tonight. Honestly, based on the regular season, they should be. The analytics models favor them:

Let’s be real, Toronto had a really, really good season. They seem to have finally found the right mix of veterans and young players in their prime. They are sick and tired of hearing about the fact that they haven’t won a playoff series since 2004. They have a respectable defense and a deep group of forwards. This should be their year.

But....

They’re playing the Tampa Bay Lightning. This weirdly talented yet inconsistant Tampa Bay Lightning team that has amazed and frustrated us all season long. This Tampa Bay Lightning team that loses to the Detroit Red Wings one game and then thumps the Maple Leafs 8-1 in the next one. This Tampa Bay Lightning team that goes five games without being to set up in zone on a power play and then rattles off a 12-for-24 stretch at the end of the season. This Tampa Bay Lightning team that when everything else is crashing down around them has Andrei Vasilevskiy calmly making acrobatic saves look shockingly routine.

So, who really knows what’s going to happen in this series?

Perhaps the biggest question going for the Lightning concerns their ability to shut down the Leafs top line of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and (probably) Michael Bunting. Not to continue to flog a storyline that has been beat three inches past its life this season, but this is where the Bolts will probably miss the Yanni Gourde/Blake Coleman/Barclay Goodrow line the most. If this match-up had happened in the previous two seasons, they would undoubtedly be the line heading out there to at least being the series against them.

Now, Coach Cooper has a couple of options. He can fight fire with fire and send out the Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Palat line and let the top lines duel, or he can rely on Anthony Cirelli, Brandon Hagel, and Alex Killorn to get the job done. After all, part of bringing in Hagel (and Nick Paul) at such a steep price was to help give the forwards a little more depth.

Whatever the combinations are, the Lightning and Leafs top three lines can pretty much run with each other all game long. Tampa Bay may have a slight advantage on the fourth line where the Corey Perry/Pierre Edouard-Bellemare/Pat Maroon trio have found a pretty good chemistry:

If that line finishes the chances they create, they can be a difference maker in the series, especially if the top lines cancel each other out.

The biggest improvement for the Leafs in relation to postseasons past is their defense. Morgan Reilly is a top defender in the league offensively and Ilya Lyubushkin has been able to cover for any defensive lapses Reilly has. Jake Muzzin and T.J. Brodie are solid as a second pairing and trade deadline pick-up Mark Giordano has paired well with youngster Timothy Liljergren give the Leafs as strong of a third-pairing as you will find in the league.

Victor Hedman is healthy for this season’s postseason. After what he did with a bad leg last year, that should be scary for any opponent. Jan Rutta seems to be over the minor injuries that were troubling him at the end of the season. Erik Cernak and Ryan McDonagh will take on the toughest match-ups and while they won’t provide much offensively, they won’t concede much room in their own zone either. If Toronto can find a way to get their top talent on the ice against Mikhail Sergachev and Zach Bogosian/Cal Foote, it could give them a slight edge.

We’ll talk about the goaltending in just a second, but therein lies the Lightning’s biggest advantage.

The regular season numbers all line up in favor of the Leafs. Can they carry that play into the postseason? Will the weight of of expectations drag them down when they face a little adversity in this series? Unfortunately, the only way they can answer those questions is to go out an do it. Much like the Lightning had to silence their doubters after the disaster against Columbus, the Leafs have to find a way to win.

For the Lightning it will be about limiting their own mistakes. Toronto is going to pressure them, but if the Bolts are able to withstand that pressure without turning the puck over they can win this thing. Their recent run of success (7-3 in their last ten) has relied heavily on the Stamkos line and the power play. One-line teams don’t generally fare too well in the postseason and they will have to find a way to get things going on their second and third lines.

It does appear that Brayden Point was practicing with the team on Sunday which is a good sign. With the blanket coverage that Kucherov and Stamkos are going to have facing them, Point is going to have to find a way to get open and set up his linemates, likely to be Nick Paul and Ross Colton, for scoring opportunities. This could be the key line for the Lightning, especially if the Cirelli line is tasked with shutting down the Matthews line and the School Bus Line can’t score.

The Lightning look to be pretty good health wise. Jan Rutta and Brayden Point missed some games down the stretch with injuries, but are expected be in the line-up tonight. Toronto has been dealing with a few more issues. Michael Bunting is expected to be on the top line after dealing with some concussion issues. Ondrej Kase is considered day-to-day but was skating with the team at practice. Rasmus Sandin has been dealing with a knee issue and his return would deepen the defensive rotation for coach Sheldon Keefe.

The biggest injury is in net with Peter Mrazek dealing with a groin injury. He has been skating recently, but isn’t expected to be game ready for this series. That could be an issue if Jack Campbell struggles early as his back-up is currently untested rookie Erik Kallgren.

It’s going to be a fun series that will likely be a lot more physical than people are expecting. There was a bit of an edge to the end of the last game between these two and don’t think the Leafs, or the fans, forgot about this from last year. The prize for winning this series is likely a meeting with the Florida Panthers so things aren’t going to get any easier. Whoever comes out of the Eastern Conference is going to earn their spot in the Stanley Cup.

Biggest Advantage for the Lightning:

This shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone - goaltending. Jack Campbell seems like a really nice guy. He was my favorite Maple Lead in their All or Nothing Amazon show. He’s put up a solid season when he’s been healthy. According to Evolving Hockey he’s posted 91.26 SV% (when adjusted for score and venue) and his goals saved above an average goaltender is 7.55. His counting stats are respectable with 31 wins, 2.64 GAA, and .914 SV%. The one ugly number on his stat line is the -8.18 goals saved above expected.

He’s also not Andrei Vasilevskiy. Those numbers we just referenced for Campell, here are Vasy’s: 91.68 adjusted SV%, 17.86 GSAA, 39 wins, 2.49 GAA, .916 SV%, and 17.6 goals saved above expected. That’s just during the regular season and doesn’t take into consideration the fact he turns into Uber-Vasilevskiy in the playoffs.

The Lightning are going to have to push their offense in order to keep pace with the Maple Leafs and that means there will be breakdowns and counter-chances for Toronto. To keep things from getting out of control they will need their All-World goaltender to put up stats similar to last postseason when he posted a 17.33 GSAx.

For Toronto, they need Campbell to stay healthy and elevate his game. The Lightning are going to get chances, they have too much talent up front not to, and the Leafs will have to rely on Campbell to make some above average saves.

Biggest Advantage for the Maple Leafs:

The Power Play. While it’s a myth that there are fewer penalties called in the playoffs, special teams play does have an added emphasis. The Leafs had the best power play in the league this season as they converted on 27.3% of their opportunities. While the Lightning had streaks where they’ve looked proficient down a skater, overall they’ve only successfully defended 80.6% of their shorthanded opportunities which is 11th in the league.

More worrisome is the fact that they took 304 minor penalties during the regular season which was the third most in the league (Boston and Nashville were tops at 312). If the Lightning have trouble with Toronto’s speed they could rack up the hooking, holding, slashing penalties that plague teams chasing the puck.

If that happens the Toronto first unit of William Nylander (13 power play goals), John Tavares (10 power play goals), Mitch Marner (19 power play assists), Auston Matthews (16 power play goals), and Morgan Reilly (21 power play assists) could have a field day in the Lightning zone.

There is also the hard work factor. If the Lightning spend 10 minutes a game chasing the puck around trying to kill penalties that wears a team down, especially over a long season. The energy exuded, especially by the depth forwards like Alex Killorn and Pierre Edouard Bellemare could take away some of their effectiveness at even strength. Plus it provides relatively easy minutes for the Maple Leafs top players.

Where the Lightning can win the series:

At the offensive blue line. When the Lightning are at their very best they dominate the blue lines at both ends of the ice, but the key is keeping their opponents on their heels. If the defense is able to keep the puck in the offensive zone and the forwards are disrupting breakout passes, it keeps the trouble 200 feet away from their zone.

Expect the Lightning to use a pretty heavy forecheck and try to throw their weight around in the Toronto zone. They want to rush the Maple Leafs clearing attempts and try to get them to just pitch the puck out blindly rather than string some passes together for clean exits. If they can get the forwards on the pucks quickly, then the defense can hang out in the neutral zone and pick those errent passes off.

That allows the Lightning to quickly transition back to offense and re-enter the zone without their opponents getting a chance to change lines. Many of the Lightning’s chances are created once they get their opponents moving around and chasing the puck. That opens up those cross-ice seams that Nikita Kucherov loves to exploit.

The Lightning also have to win the puck retrieval battles. If they are getting to rebounds first and winning the 50/50 pucks along the boards it will help them wear down the Leafs.

Where Toronto can win the series:

The middle of the ice. They will need to shut down the middle of the ice in their own zone and break up those passes from Kucherov and Hedman that lead to quick one-timers and chaos.

If they are able to cleanly exit the zone and build speed through the neutral zone, they will give the Lightning nightmares all season long. The Lightning defense isn’t the fastest in the world and teams with speed up front have plagued them for years. With the willingness of the Tampa Bay defenders to join the offense, it leaves gaps in the middle of the ice when the forwards are slow to cover up and that leads to numerous breakaways down the middle of the ice. Toronto has the finishing talent to turn those breakaways into goals.

In the Lightning zone, the middle of the ice will be important as well. A lot of the success the Lightning have had over the last few years is their ability to clear out the front of the net. If Toronto can get in front of the net, screen Vasy, and whack away at rebounds they can cause problems for the Lightning defense.

Story line I’m preemptively not caring about:

“Look at all of these Toronto fans in Tampa!” We get it. They’re going to travel well. It’s going to be noisy in Amalie Arena when they score. It happens every time the Lightning play an Original Six or other long-established team in the postseason. I’m secure enough in our fan base that I really don’t care. If Leaf fans want to come down and fill our hotel rooms and overpay for tickets, good for them.

Also, if you haven’t heard, they can even wear their own jerseys.

Prediction:

I’ve gone back and forth a few times while writing and researching this post. In the end I think, despite the heroics of Andrei Vasilevskiy, the Leafs squeak this out in an epic (although lower-scoring than expected), seven game series.

Toronto Maple Leafs win: 4-3.

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

Forwards

Michael Bunting — Auston Matthews — Mitchell Marner

Alexander Kerfoot — John Tavares — William Nylander

Ilya Mikheyev — David Kampf — Pierre Engvall

Wayne Simmonds — Colin Blackwell — Jason Spezza

Defense

Morgan Rielly — Ilya Lyubushkin

Jake Muzzin — TJ Brodie

Mark Giordano — Timothy Liljegren

Goaltenders

Jack Campbell

Erik Kallgren

Scratches: Colin Blackwell, Nick Robertson, Kyle Clifford, Nick Abruzzese, Justin Holl

Injuries: Rasmus Sandin (knee), Ondrej Kase (concussion), Petr Mrazek (groin)

Tampa Bay Lightning Potential Lines

Forwards

Ondrej Palat — Steven Stamkos — Nikita Kucherov

Nick Paul — Brayden Point — Ross Colton

Alex Killorn — Anthony Cirelli — Brandon Hagel

Pat Maroon — Pierre-Edouard Bellemare — Corey Perry

Defense

Victor Hedman — Jan Rutta

Ryan McDonagh — Erik Cernak

Mikhail Sergachev — Zach Bogosian

Goaltenders

Andrei Vasilevskiy

Brian Elliott

Scratched: Cal Foote, Riley Nash, Fredrick Claesson (?)

Injuries: None