In what was an exciting and hard fought series, the Maple Leafs ultimately lost to the Lightning in 7 games. Coming off of two championships, and despite some regular season mediocrity, it was easy to predict that the Lightning were going to be a tough opponent.
I wrote about how the regular seasons shaped up this series in a previous Staturday column, so I won’t go too deep into that here, but suffice to say that the Leafs were a much stronger team in the regular season than the Bolts were. That narrative disappeared in the playoffs, quite quickly.
After a Game 1 blowout win, the Leafs got a wake up call in Game 2 as the Leafs got dominated by Tampa for 90% of that game and lost. After that, the teams traded wins back and forth until the decisive Game 7, where Leafs fell short of keeping up the pattern.
In the column below I’ll look into the team level stats, and also some key individual stats to really autopsy this series.
In terms of overall series stats, neither team really had an advantage. For shot attempts, at 5-on-5, the Leafs had a 50.68 Corsi For percentage (CF%). For actual shots on goal, it was 50.34%. For Natural Stat Trick’s “Expected Goals” (xGF%) model, where each shot attempt is weighted based on how dangerous it was, the Leafs were up 50.58%. Typically, we adjust based on the score state of the game and the venue it was played in, because it’s easier to get shot attempts when you’re losing, and it’s easier to get shot attempts at home. When doing so, the Leafs go to the “below 50%” side of that balance, but the numbers are still very close.
Another surprising fact is that the Leafs’ special teams advantage didn’t carry through from the regular season. I wrote about that in another previous column. Because there’s a lot more tenacity in the playoffs, you actually see more minor penalties called than in the regular season (source 1, source 2). Unfortunately, in the playoffs, the Leafs’ special teams were not that much stronger than Tampa’s. The Leafs had 3 powerplay goals and allowed 1 shorthanded, for a differential of +3. Tampa’s differential was +5. The Leafs had about 83% of the unblocked shot attempts while on the powerplay, and Tampa had about 78%.
The key problem was that Tampa had more opportunities. The Leafs gave Tampa Bay 33 opportunities on the powerplay, while Tampa only gave back 28. It’d be easy to cry “unfair refereeing”, but this is a continuation of the regular season trend. Tampa Bay had about 4.71 PP opportunities per game, compared to the Leafs having 4. During the regular season, Tampa was 3rd in the league with 3.16 powerplays per game, while the Leafs were 21st with 2.82.
Surprisingly, the Leafs actually had a better team shooting percentage and save percentage than the Lightning in the series, although again the advantage is slight. This is due to scoring one more goal at 5-on-5 than Tampa Bay did, while having about the same number shots.
The most individual players on the team are always the goalies, so let’s start there. As mentioned above, the Leafs actually had the better team save percentage. When you think of the goaltending in this series, it seems the narrative is that Andrei Vasilevsky led his team to victory while Jack Campbell faltered, but the stats don’t bear that out. Each goalie performed pretty similarly; they both had an 89.7% save percentage.
Compared to previous years, it’d be hard to argue that the Leafs’ stars didn’t show up in this series. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander each had more than a point-per game, and all were on the “over 50%” side of CF%, and the Matthews and Marner were above 60% in xGF%, along with their usual linemate Michael Bunting.
Some criticism around John Tavares has arisen from this series, and his performance did leave something to be desired. His line with Nylander and Ondrej Kase didn’t have much success at 5-on-5. Tavares himself was a sub-45% CF% player for the series, which is very disappointing. He did get 6 points, but 4 of those were on the powerplay.
On the defensive side, veteran two-way defenders Jake Muzzin and TJ Brodie were excellent. Brodie had a 57.35% CF% and was heavily matched up against Tampa’s top players.
Both Ilya Lyubushkin and Timothy Liljegren struggled in this series. Liljegren gave way to Justin Holl (who played OK) after two games. In about 12 minutes of ice time per game at 5-on-5, Liljegren was a 40% CF% player. That’s very bad, but also a very small sample. For Lyubushkin, he kept his role while playing almost as poorly. At 42.2% CF% and 45.87% xGF%, “Boosh” clearly struggled with the elevated role on Morgan Rielly’s pair. To coach Sheldon Keefe’s credit, he would often put Mark Giordano with Rielly when they needed an offensive push. As a result, Rielly’s numbers look OK, and Giordano’s look great (though his role was sheltered for the most part).
The “stat of the series” has to go to Kyle Clifford, who had an impressive 15 PIMs in just 25 seconds of ice time. I like Clifford and consider him similar to Matt Martin in his ability to keep a strong forecheck and clog up the neutral zone in a way that helps the team defensively. But it’d be hard to imagine him back after potentially costing the team Game 1 like that. Obviously the Leafs rose above that challenge, but a 5-minute major penalty in the first period can easily put you down 2-3 goals. That’s not a risk you want to take.
This series is a failure for the Toronto Maple Leafs. That’s obvious. They lost, so it’s a failure. But it’s a failure that they can take a lot of positive things from, and come back better.
Previous series losses have felt like gut punching disasters. This one feels different because they really were neck-and-neck with the Lightning all series, and then just came up an inch or two short in Game 7. They didn’t blow a big lead, they didn’t get beat by an obviously inferior opponent, this was a real series that they just barely failed in.
Going into this offseason, there are a lot of moving parts, so it will be really interesting to see if they can come back as strong next year. With so much of the core locked up, I believe they will. And then, assuming they make the playoffs again next year, maybe this loss can be the teachable moment they’ve needed these past eight years.