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Morning After Thoughts: What a roller coaster series this has been

Inconsistency is the only consistency

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

This weekend we saw the full range of the 2021-2022 Tampa Bay Lightning. In Game Three, we saw a team relentlessly tank its chances at winning through self-inflicted wounds. Then we saw a focused group throttle a very good opponent in Game Four. Both endings of those games didn’t completely follow suit—Tampa Bay found some much-needed momentum and pressure at the tail end of Game Three, and Toronto managed to scrounge up their own at the end of Game Four. However, what we’ve come to conclude is this series makes little sense and none of these games have been entirely competitive from start to finish.

Games One and Four mirrored each other, just for different teams. Games Two and Three were not as comparable to each other but showcased how neither team has wrestled absolute control thus far.

For the Lightning, it’s a microcosm of their season—a clearly talented team that, when at their best, can run anyone out of the building. For the Leafs, it’s a character trait—a top-heavy, talent-rich group that boasts more offensive firepower than any other team in the league but repeatedly falls on their face when adversity continuously approaches.

The only consistencies in this series are whoever scores first wins the game, the winning team will score five or more goals, and home-ice advantage match-ups have dictated games, and neither side can definitively say they have the upper hand.

Specifically, match-ups have wildly swung games for both teams. In Toronto, the Auston Matthews/Mitch Marner duo dominated while seeing most of their ice time come away from the Anthony Cirelli/Brayden Point/Alex Killorn trio. In Tampa, the Leafs' top offensive unit was suffocated by the trio. If the Lightning hadn’t been their own worst enemy in Game Three, this series would look very different this morning.

If the Lightning can keep the Matthews/Marner line in check then the pressure goes to Toronto’s depth, specifically Leafs captain John Tavares, who hasn’t been noticeable this series.

Another point of emphasis that has helped the Lightning is their 5v5 play combined with their already strong special teams. After Game Two, I lamented on the Lightning’s inability to score at 5v5. Game Three exacerbated the issue while Game Four saw an avalanche of goals come from 5v5. If Game Four is a true sign of things to come for Tampa Bay’s even-strength offense, then that might be their path to victory.

Tampa Bay’s defense has progressively taken steps in improving throughout the series. Mikhail Sergachev looks to have found his confidence once again, but we’ve seen this defensive unit show flashes and regress. The only game-breaking constant is Victor Hedman, who continues to be his dominant self.

Goaltending, once thought to be something to stand out in this series, has been lukewarm from both sides. Jack Campbell started strong with his Game One shutout but has looked anything like that since. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay’s X-factor, hasn’t been his normal self either. Both have made highlight-reel saves during the series, but neither has been particularly spectacular overall. This is surprising given Vasilevskiy’s pedigree and performance the past two years, and Campbell’s play this season (when healthy).

“It’s been extremely weird,” said Pat Maroon after Game Four.

Weird is an apt description. The series, thus far, can be interpreted in two ways:

  • The Leafs stormed out with an emphatic victory in Game One placing their standard into the ice proclaiming their arrival as true contenders
  • The Lightning weathered Toronto’s biggest surge at the beginning of the series and is slowly taking control

Neither, I feel, is correct. This series has turned into “who can take a haymaker” more effectively. All four games have been lopsided and both teams have controlled play in their victories and severely chased in their defeats. Tampa Bay’s inconsistencies from the regular season have been glaringly apparent while Toronto’s historical inability to maintain momentum from game to game is also plain to see.

Which team can overcome those obstacles? It’s unclear.

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos firmly believes in his team, however.

“This group has proven it knows what it takes at this time of year,” said Stamkos. “We know how to respond. We’ve done that twice now in this series.”

With inconsistency being the only constant between these two teams through four games, what exactly do the Lightning need to do moving forward?

“Grab the series—that’s got to be our mentality,” said Stamkos. “We have to harness that energy we come out with after a loss and let’s come out with it next game.”

The series now shifts to a best-of-three with Toronto holding home-ice (and match-up) advantage. It’s up to the Lightning to find a way past that to secure their ninth consecutive playoff series. We’ll see which team manages to find enough consistency to come out on top.