I’m going to start this Staturday column with the obvious caveat: the numbers below are for the regular season efforts of both our beloved Toronto Maple Leafs and the 2-time Cup-winning, three-peat-attempting Tampa Bay Lightning. On the one hand, the Leafs have a history of playing great in the regular season and then pooping the bed in the playoffs. On the other hand, the Tampa Bay Lightning have little incentive to push themselves in the regular season, beyond ensuring they make the playoffs.
Let’s take a look at the Lightning and how they compare to the Leafs.
Over the course of the year, Toronto has held a firm lead in the shot attempt differential over Tampa, according to Evolving Hockey (the bottom blue line is T.B while the one above it is TOR):
According to Natural Stat Trick, on the whole, the Leafs get 54.49% of the shot attempts at 5-on-5, when adjusting for score and venue. That’s good for 5th in the league. Conversely, the Lightning sit at 51.5%, and 12th in the league.
If we take the total shot attempts that each of the Leafs and Lightning got this season, smash them together, the Leafs should control about 51.62% of the shot attempts in this series.
The other question is about the pace of the game. The Leafs play at much higher, riskier pace than the Lightning, who are bit more methodical and quiet in their approach. If you add the rate at which each team generates shot attempts for and against together, that’s an estimation of pace. The Leafs are the 6th paciest team, while the Lightning are the 27th. Low pace isn’t bad, it’s just a stylistic difference.
If the Leafs can push the pace on the Lightning, they should have the skill advantage to win that slugfest. If they play down to the Lightning’s pace, they risk suffering from the Lightning’s ability to make something out of nothing.
May the odds be ever in our favour
The NHL Playoff Odds machine on moneypuck.com gives Toronto a really good chance of beating the Lightning:
Of course, this is all on the above-stated caveat that either team’s regular season numbers are a genuine representation of what the actual players on the ice will do come the playoffs.
According to Micah Blake McCurdy’s playoff chances model, the Lightning have had over 95% chance to make the playoffs since January. If you’re that team, coming off of two championships and attempting a historic third in a row, it’s going to be difficult to have your foot pressing the gas pedal to the floor most nights.
On the other hand, the Leafs faced a lot of pressure to succeed this year. After another collapse at the end of last season, leaving many fans questioning their loyalty, they needed to do well this year in the playoffs. The feeling from this perspective was that they needed to do well in the regular season to position themselves well and carry momentum into the playoffs. Despite the Leafs having an even higher chance to make the playoffs than the Lightning for most of the season, the narrative around the teams is different because of the back-to-back championships in Tampa Bay.
The other narrative possible for Tampa? They just aren’t as good this year.
It’s hard to say which is which, but the series will bear out one narrative or the other, even if neither is true. If @Andrei Vasilevski plays his face off, then these numbers won’t matter. It’s a good indication of what might happen, but with these two teams in particular, there’s ample room for the picture those numbers paint to change dramatically.