Tampa Bay Lightning at Toronto Maple Leafs: Is this a playoff preview?

And if so, round one or round two?

Tampa Bay Lightning at Toronto Maple Leafs: GAME #56

Time: 7:00 Eastern Time

Location: Air Canada Centre

Broadcast / Streaming: NHLN-US, TVAS, TSN4, SUN

Opponent SBNation Site: Pension Plan Puppets


Today we interviewed Pension Plan Puppets’ Marlies correspondent (and our own Quick Strikes specialist) Hardev about his feelings regarding the Toronto Maple Leafs. We asked him all the hard questions, too.

Raw Charge: Who’s better, Mitch Marner or William Nylander, and why?

Hardev: Jesus. That’s a tough one.

Their statistical lines are completely identical. They both had 60 points last year and are both on pace for 60.4 this season. It’s hard to say one is better than the other because while Nylander has Auston Matthews as his pivot, Marner has had James van Riemsdyk on his opposite wing for a while as well as sheltered minutes on the third line.

More recently Marner has been put with better players in 30-goal scorer Nazem Kadri and future Hall of Famer Patrick Marleau and been given the same sort of competition as the Matthews line. I think it all comes out as a tie that can be decided by personal preference based on their style of play.

Nylander is smooth and dynamic, while Marner is a waterbug who is just trying sh*t all the time. Personally, I would say William Nylander because I think playing against top competition on the road every night is harder to do. Also, Nylander is most likely going to transition into a center after this season. He takes the right-side faceoffs in every situation he and Matthews are out on the ice, with Matthews taking the left. He’s had to play center in pinches, especially when Matthews was injured and did a very admirable job of it, all things considered.

Raw Charge: Please explain the Leafs’ defensive system and who seems to best understand what Mike Babcock wants out of defensive play.

Hardev: I may need to phone a friend for the first part. My systems analysis is what some might call “a work in progress”. But I can tell you that from his body of work all season and by seeing how much Babcock trusts him, Ron Hainsey is the player who plays the system to the letter, who teaches his defensive partner (most often Morgan Rielly but sometimes Jake Gardiner) where to be and when, and who is the most consistent of the group.

For the forwards, the clear answer is Zach Hyman. He’s been the defensive presence for Matthews and Nylander from day one. His positional awareness is outstanding, he covers for defensemen when he needs to, he back checks, and he’s one of the primary penalty killers alongside Leo Komarov. I’ve noticed on several occasions that in the defensive zone, Hyman would be the player in front of the net, acting as the center, with Matthews and Nylander guarding the points. It’s a brilliant piece of creativity by the coaching staff in my mind because Hyman probably has the biggest physical presence on the line, he’s responsible down low, and if there’s a mistake by a defenseman, Matthews and Nylander are away on a break.

The Leafs’ love for Hyman dates back to his first years with the Marlies. Its a running joke that the Marlies video sessions were just a Hyman highlight pack of all the good things he does while on the ice. Steve Dangle did an interview with coach Sheldon Keefe and GM Kyle Dubas and I think it sums Hyman up perfectly, in case any of the readers would like a bit of pre-game homework.

I can rant and rave about Hyman for days, haha.

Raw Charge: What is the biggest worry that the Leafs fanbase has right now?

Hardev: There are a few, some that not too many people are saying out loud but would have season-threatening consequences, and others that everyone is talking about but that do not really have much of an impact in the grand scheme of things.

An example of the latter would be playing Roman Polak. We all know Polak is bad. He’s not good at the things his defenders say he’s good at, and he handcuffs the lineup both on the ice and in different situations. He takes a lot of penalties when his biggest plus is supposedly penalty killing, and he’s basically a scratch when the Leafs are late into a tight game.

Right now, he’s in a rotation with the other RHD the leafs have in Connor Carrick (think of him as American Slater Koekkoek), and the change in the Leafs’ performance is next to nothing when one goes in for the other. With the emergence of Travis Dermott as a top four defenseman (my colleagues at PPP would tell me to hold my horses but I held my horses for the first three months of the season when watching Dermott every weekend with the Marlies) who can play the right side in a pinch or full-time, kill penalties, and create offense, the Leafs will eventually not need either player, but it took Mike Babcock 150 games to scratch Matt Martin so patience is probably the key right now.

A concern that I have that I’ve only seen a handful of Leafs fans talk about is something that Lightning fans are also dealing with: how to not break your star goaltender because of fatigue.

Frederik Andersen (who I will point out has had comparable numbers to Vasy since November) plays every night that Isn’t the second half of a back to back. He did that last year and he’s going to do it this year (plus in playoffs). Normally, I wouldn’t be worried about this because the Leafs’ sports science and medical team is top notch, but the recent fall of Cam Talbot due to fatigue this year makes me worry that something similar could happen next year or in the playoffs.

The Leafs literally have the two best goaltenders in the AHL this season in Garret Sparks and Calvin Pickard and a competent backup in Curtis McElhinney. The argument has always been why not let these guys get a game in here or there, all three will give the team a chance to win on any given night. It’s something I think the Leafs should employ heading into the end of the season, especially near the trade deadline in case the Leafs want to dangle one of their two #1 AHL goaltenders.

Raw Charge: Which team would you prefer the Leafs to meet in the first round of playoffs?

Hardev: I would say Boston. Talent and rosters aside, here’s why:

1. I don’t think my heart could take a first round series between my two blue and white teams.

2. I think with all the recent history between the Leafs and Bruins, I want the Leafs to take on their playoff demons from 2013 and beat the Bruins in the first round.

3. There’s a little part of my brain that thinks that if the Leafs beat the Bruins, it’ll spark something in the players, especially players who were there last time (JVR, Kadri, Gardiner, Komarov, and Bozak), and unlock another gear. Another gear that MIGHT just be enough to beat the Lightning in the next round.

Raw Charge: What’s your prediction for who wins this game, and by how much? [TRICK QUESTION, HARDEV.]

Hardev: Anything can happen in overtime ;)

Raw Charge: Wiggled right out of that one, I see. Thanks, kiddo!

Comparison Chart:

@loserpoints’ notes:

The Leafs are a scary team offensively. They’ve been one of the best in terms of generating dangerous shots all season. But they also offer lots of opportunities defensively. A team with as much finishing talent as the Lightning should be able to take advantage of that.

On special teams, the Leafs power play is literally off the charts. They are exceptional at generating dangerous shots in front of the net. However, all of those chances haven’t turned into goals as often as might be expected. The Lightning penalty kill has struggled lately so any penalties taken tonight could lead to some issues for the Bolts.

The last thing to keep an eye on here is the play of Frederik Andersen. He’s been outstanding over the last ten games. The combination of the Leafs poor defense and the Lighting’s dangerous offense will likely put pressure on him to continue at this level.

Tampa Bay Lightning:

Forward Lines:

Yanni Gourde - Steven Stamkos - Tyler Johnson

Alex Killorn - Brayden Point - Nikita Kucherov

Adam Erne - Vladislav Namestnikov - Cory Conacher

Chris Kunitz - Matthew Peca/Cedric Paquette - Ryan Callahan

Defense Pairings:

Victor Hedman — Anton Stralman

Mikhail Sergachev — Dan Girardi

Braydon Coburn — Andrej Sustr


Andrei Vasilevskiy

Louis Domingue

Toronto Maple Leafs

Forward Lines

Zach Hyman - Auston Matthews - William Nylander

Patrick Marleau - Nazem Kadri - Mitch Marner

James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Connor Brown

Leo Komarov - Dominic Moore - Kasperi Kapanen

Defence Pairings

Morgan Rielly - Ron Hainsey

Jake Gardiner - Nikita Zaitsev

Travis Dermott - Roman Polak


Frederik Andersen

Curtis McElhinney