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Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Potential first-round rendezvous: Sizing up the Lightning’s storm

The National Hockey League’s playoff format is a cruel, snarling beast.

Rather than the Maple Leafs being rewarded for their best-ever regular season with a chill, cake-walky first-round opponent when the playoffs get going next week, the team will find itself staring down either the Boston Bruins or Tampa Bay Lightning in their opening series which, frankly, isn’t good.

Neither presents a favourable matchup for Toronto, as both juggernauts have taken their turns looking like the runaway best team in the East this season and both, at times, have boasted the on-ice dominance of a Stanley Cup front-runner. Boston and Tampa Bay have legit Hart trophy candidates leading their respective clubs, players in the running for multiple other major awards, lights-out goaltending, and 6-foot-7-plus behemoths manning their blue lines. Not ideal.

Which of these monsters would the Leafs rather take a twirl with in the opening round? Neither, probably, but it’s going to be one of them—so here’s how the Lightning stack up as a potential dance partner:

Who had the edge? It was pretty damn close. Tampa and Toronto played an air-tight season-series in 2017-18, with three of their four clashes settled by one goal and the other decided by a pair. Tampa Bay also grabbed a shootout victory a month-and-a-half ago and won the most recent contest on March 20, while Toronto took a 4-3 barnburner back in February.

Despite the lightning holding the edge in wins, goals, and shots, and the Leafs tipping the scales in their direction slightly in save percentage, the differentials are pretty minuscule and—aside from a bounce here or there—the head-to-head stats are essentially a wash. The Leafs performance as a whole against the Lightning this season has been admirable and there’s nothing that’s happened on a grand scale throughout the season series that should intimidate or worry anyone in Toronto.

When you dig a little deeper, however, there’s a couple of takeaways from Tampa’s body of work this season to suggest the Lightning are not the team Toronto wants to draw in Round 1.

Cons of a Lightning matchup

(Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

Tampa’s offense is lethal. Led by Hart Trophy candidate Nikita Kucherov alongside Steven Stamkos, and a supporting cast featuring the likes of Brayden Point, Yanni Gourde and Tyler Johnson, the Lightning are four-lines deep and possess the terrifying ability to rip a game wide up in a real hurry. With the regular season winding down, Tampa ranks first in the Eastern Conference in offensive output, averaging a whopping 3.43 goals per game.

Nikita Kucherov could hit the 100-point plateau and Stamkos is also sitting in the top 10 league-wide in points, but the deadly duo shouldn’t overshadow the rest of this supremely-balanced Lightning group which will finish the campaign with eight players at the 40-point mark or better.

Victor Hedman is a savage. One of those in that 40-point club is their superstar blueliner, who happens to rank fourth on their entire roster with a tasty 61 points on the campaign. He sits sixth among NHL defencemen in points-per-game and second in goals—just one back of Dougie Hamilton despite playing five fewer games. He can take over a game from the backend all on his own, and that’s just from a production standpoint.

To go with his offensive prowess, Hedman is one of the most reliable on the planet in his own end, posting a plus-30 so far this season (do with that stat what you will, but it’s clear that a lot more good than bad is happening for the Lightning when Hedman is on the ice) while averaging an obscene 25:49 TOI per night against the opponent’s top weapons on a nightly basis. 

Pros of a Lightning matchup

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Trending better in key categories. Though the Lightning have five more wins and nine more points than Toronto does this season, the Leafs have been producing a much better differential than Tampa since the All-star break. In their last 29 games, The Leafs have scored at a torrid 3.69 goals-per-game pace while allowing 2.79 per contest—a +0.90 differential compared to Tampa’s 0.16.

Toronto has had a sizeable advantage in goal since the All-Star game, too, posting a .917 team Sv% (ranking 6th) with the Lighting boasting a 23rd-best .902 since the end of January.

TO’s power play vs TB’s penalty kill. Aside from the ability to score during the most tightly-checked time of the season and a more-than capable presence in net, a playoff series could very well come down to which club performs better on special teams—especially the power play. Toronto gets to check off those first two boxes over the past couple months, and its power play has been on an absolute tear since the All-Star break, too.

The Leafs have converted on 31.1 percent of it’s power play opportunities over the last 29 contests, ranking first in the NHL in PP efficiency over that time. The Lightning, meanwhile, have been dismal on the penalty kill the past two months, boasting a horrendous 71.4 percent kill rate—good for second-last in the league since All-Star Weekend.

(Of course these numbers will alter slightly as each club plays out the last couple games of their respective schedules, but you get the idea. On Friday, we breakdown the how a potential Bruins-Maple Leafs matchup could look.)