There are a lot of reasons to not be excited about the Leafs facing the Lightning in the first round of the playoffs, but one of the least talked about ones is the blue-on-white vs. blue-on-white matchup. Frankly, I get disoriented quickly and think they should take a house league pinny approach to make one of the teams stand out this year.
My biggest gripe aside, there are other issues to be concerned about, like the fact the Lightning are the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions. When the Leafs were losing playoff series against Boston, Boston was the City of Champions, now it seems that Tampa Bay has taken over that moniker as they’ve been dominant across three sports. Maybe it’s the proximity to Tom Brady that continues to trip up the Leafs, but someone is going to have to commit hours of science to that hypothesis to see if I’m right.
If there’s a true dragon to be slain in the playoffs, it’s probably the Tampa Bay Lightning, and while it won’t be easy for anyone, the Maple Leafs are capable of doing it.
Tampa by the numbers
as of April 20th
In a head-to-head matchup here, it’s very easy to feel good about the Leafs situation. There is no Toronto answer for Andrei Vasilevskiy, but in the three games the teams have played this season Toronto has had a 3.67 GF average. Two of those games did see Vasilevskiy put up a .920 save percentage or better. That .846 game is certainly encouraging for the Leafs though.
As for the Lightning, in general, they’ve been in the top quarter or top third of the league in most categories. The power play might be the most surprising shortcoming for the Lightning, and it could come down to the lack of a solid second unit.
As much as it’s easy to appreciate what is there at the top for the Lightning in Point, Stamkos, Kucherov, as well as Cirielli, and Palat, it’s not the depth we’ve seen in previous years. No Goodrow, Coleman, Gourde, Johnson, and others is a step back, and while Hagel and Paul were good adds, that’s not the Lightning loading up like previous years, that’s the Lightning trying to get back a little of what they lost in the offseason. It’s not a group to take for granted, but it’s not the Lightning rolling four unstoppable lines.
The Leafs will run into some big body veterans that will try to make life difficult for Toronto. We don’t really need to revisit the trouble that Corey Perry gave the Leafs last postseason, and players like Colton, Maroon, Bellemare, and Killorn will test the Leafs physical limits.
Production wise, everyone has taken enough of a step back this year that the Leafs look to have an advantage over the Lightning now.
Any blueline featuring Victor Hedman begs to be taken seriously. Throw in Ryan McDonagh, and defensively they already seem more imposing than what the Leafs can put together. Sergachev, Rutta, and especially Cernak round out some other solid options that make life difficult for the opponents of the Lightning, and Zach Bogosian adds some additional size that the Leafs know enough about to understand that he can be a problem for their smaller forwards if they don’t keep his feet moving.
Andrei Vasilevskiy has put in another solid season for the Lightning, but it hasn’t been a Vezina caliber season. That might be enough to put the Leafs in the situation they need to be in. Of course, last year they also played against a top-tier goaltender who hadn’t been having their best season and he managed to put it all together at the right time in order to eliminate the Leafs.
When you look at the entire season, Vasilevskiy is sitting at a .916 save percentage vs. Campbell’s .913. As much as Campbell’s numbers are driven by one significant spike, it’s at least worth clinging to the fact that Vasilevskiy is coming into the playoffs looking beatable, but that’s also ignoring that his save percentage jumped from .917 in the 2019-20 season to .927 in the playoffs, and jumped from .925 last season to .937 in the playoffs. We have to expect to see the best version of Vasilevskiy.
How do they beat the Leafs?
Well, Vasilevskiy is a great start. Using their size to lean on the Leafs will help too, as the Leafs are finally in a place where they can outskill the Lightning. After years of Toronto seeming to try to measure up to the LIghtning, they might finally be in a place where they’ve passed them with the exception of Vasilevskiy and Hedman being the difference makers that can still set the Lightning apart. The path to victory doesn’t look easy for either side, and might be the best skill on skill matchup we see in the first round of the playoffs.
Likelihood of these teams facing each other
If the playoffs started tonight, it would be Tampa and Toronto, with Toronto having the home ice advantage. Interestingly enough, tonight the Leafs can clinch home ice advantage for the first round by beating the Lightning, and at the same time Toronto reduces the chance that they face the Lightning and potentially increase the chance of facing the Bruins if Boston can pick up a win against Pittsburgh tonight.
There still is a very good chance that the Leafs meet the Lightning in the first round, but there is also a chance that the Lightning find themselves in the top wildcard position and start off the playoffs in the Metropolitan Division facing Carolina or New York.
As far as outcomes for who to face in the first round, the Tampa Bay Lightning have to be one of the toughest draws out there. The likely Wild vs. Blues series might be the series that could rival the Leafs for having an undesirable first round matchup. That said, there’s something to be said for potentially getting the toughest competition out of the way early, and whether it’s the Lightning or the Bruins there’s a sense the Leafs would be doing that.
That does make it a bit more challenging to look at the second round as an expectation for Toronto, but I guess you get those expectations by pissing away opportunities against the Blue Jackets and Canadiens in previous years.
The Leafs and Lightning matchup doesn’t really have a clear favourite, but it does have the potential for amazing hockey.
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