NHL Playoff Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Toronto Maple Leafsby Christopher Gallagher May 2, 2022 0 comments
The Toronto Maple Leafs are looking to snap their 18-year-long playoff drought. They will play host to the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions in the Tampa Bay Lightning. Putting together their best regular season in franchise history, the Maple Leafs won 54 games for a franchise-record 115 points. Rolling into the postseason, the Lightning have been red hot throughout the month of April. The team has won seven of their last ten games. They are looking to become the first team to win three straight titles since the New York Islanders in the 1980s.
Splitting the season series right down the middle, Toronto knocked off Tampa Bay in their own building a month ago 6-2. However, Jon Cooper’s group was able to rebound with an 8-1 beatdown on April 21st. This will be one of the best series in the opening round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Here is what to look for.
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Led by the best goaltender in the game, Andrei Vasilevskiy put together another solid regular season for Tampa Bay. The reigning Conn Smythe winner finished in a tie for first with 39 wins. Along with this, he posted a 2.49 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage across 63 starts. On the flip side, the Maple Leafs head into game one with significant question marks in between the pipes. In what largely has been a tale of two seasons for number one netminder Jack Campbell, the 30-year-old was red hot to begin the year.
The former first-round pick earned the first all-star nod of his ten-year pro career. However, the Port Huron, Michigan native then battled confidence issues while missing time with a rib ailment. Bouncing back nicely, he amassed a 7-0-2 record with a .915 save percentage after returning from the injured list. The team will need a rock-solid performance from him if they hope to dethrone the reigning champs.
Tampa Bay is home to one of the best defensive cores in the game. The team is guided by one of the game’s brightest stars, Victor Hedman. In the conversation for the Norris Trophy once again, the 31-year-old finished third in scoring at the position with 84 points while racking up a career-high 20 goals. Rounding out their blue line, look for the group’s second pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak to also log heavy minutes.
The Maple Leafs have improved their play in their own zone in each of the last few seasons. The franchise, including Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, and Jake Muzzin, made multiple acquisitions to add to their blue line throughout the year. They acquired Mark Giordano from the Seattle Kraken at the trade deadline while also adding Ilya Lyubushkin from the Arizona Coyotes.
One of the best power plays in the league, Tampa Bay, is clicking at a 23.9 percent rate heading into the postseason, the eighth-highest mark in the NHL. The team has scored a goal with the extra man in a season-high eight consecutive games while scoring multiple goals in four of their last six. Quarterbacked up top by Hedman, Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos flank him on the right and left. Brayden Point operates the bumper position while Alex Killorn handles the net-front duties.
Like their opponent, the Maple Leaf’s power play has also been clicking all year long. The number one overall unit in the NHL, the team scored on 27.3 percent of their opportunities. Running through Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, the former tied for third in the league with 16 goals with the man advantage while the latter racked up 19 assists.
As physical as they come, Tampa Bay was once again one of the league leaders in penalty minutes. They trailed only the Nashville Predators in total penalty minutes and penalties taken per 60 minutes. Relying on their special teams to bail them out, the team lost two of their most important pieces in Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman. This caused their penalty kill to fall to 11th in the league at 80.2 percent after ranking inside the top four in 2021.
On the flip side, the Maple Leafs have improved on their shorthanded play from a year ago. Killing them off at an 82.1 percent clip, the team uses David Kampf and Marner as their first unit while Giordano and Brodie operate the back end.
With no shortage of firepower in this series, Tampa Bay is littered with superstars upfront. Starting with their top line, Stamkos put together one of the best seasons of his 14-year NHL career. The Markham, Ontario native amassed a career-high 106 points while adding in 42 goals. Along with this, Kucherov has finally returned to form after undergoing surgery for a lower-body injury early in the year.
The former Hart Trophy has racked up 22 points in his last ten games to bring his season total up to 69. A proven playoff performer, Point headlines the team’s second line alongside Anthony Cirelli and Brandon Hagel. Closing out their bottom-six lines, the group employs one of the best third lines in hockey with Nick Paul, Ross Colton, and Killorn.
Leading the way at forward for the Maple Leafs, Matthews captured the Rocket Richard Trophy for the first time in his NHL career. He racked up a career-high 60 goals to become the first player in the league to achieve the mark since Stamkos in 2011-2012. The odds on favorite to capture the Hart Trophy, the former first overall pick, broke Rick Vaive‘s franchise mark for the most tallies in a single season. Joining him, Marner built off his spectacular 2021 campaign with another strong year.
The former fourth overall pick recorded 97 points while leading the team with 62 assists. Needing to get scoring production out of their lower lines if they hope to make a run in the postseason; look for captain John Tavares and William Nylander to play a crucial role in this series if the team hopes to come out victorious.
The Lightning is full of proven playoff performers built to play in big games. Looking to win their third Stanley Cup in a row, both point and Kucherov have proven track records in the playoffs. Fresh off a Conn Smythe Trophy last year, the former led Tampa Bay with 32 points in 23 games. Along with this, the latter topped all performers in the postseason with 14 goals. It all comes down to their two superstars upfront for the Maple Leafs. Needing to be the best two guys on the ice, both Matthews and Marner need to shake off their playoff demons of past years if the team is going to win their first series in over 18 seasons.
Cementing himself as one of the brightest minds in the league behind the bench, Cooper is continuing to rack up the accolades. Leading his team to back-to-back Stanley Cups, the 54-year-old has already surpassed John Tortorella as the most winning head coach in franchise history.
Surrounded by question marks league-wide as he heads into his third postseason as the leader of the Maple Leafs, Sheldon Keefe will look to get his group over the playoff hump. The 41-year-old has helped the team improve on their regular-season win totals in each of his first three seasons with the organization. Looking to add post-season success to his list of accolades, he will need to be on his game against one of the best in the business.
This will be one of the best matchups in the opening round of the playoffs. Expect a back and forth affair between two of the best teams in the league. The Maple Leafs are looking to get out of the first round for the first time in nearly two decades. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay aims to join rare territory by becoming the first franchise to win three consecutive Stanley Cup titles since the Islanders from 1980-83.
With both lineups littered with offensive firepower, Toronto will need their top-end guys to be the best players on the ice if they hope to dethrone the reigning champs. However, the Lightning have the big-game experience and postseason pedigree present up and down their lineup. Look for Vasilevskiy to ultimately be the difference in this series.
Series Prediction: Tampa Bay 4-2
Follow Chris Gallagher on Twitter @ChrisGally06
Main Image Credit: Embed from Getty Images