Leafs vs Lightning Playoff Preview
For a team desperate to make it beyond the first round, the Leafs find themselves faced with a massive challenge. Standing in the way of this accomplishment is the back-to-back defending Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning. These teams have met four times this season with each winning two; Maple Leafs: 2-2-0, Lightning: 2-1-1
This has been a historic season for the Maple Leafs in many aspects. First of all, the team set a franchise record for the most points in a season with 115 points. Next, this season saw star centreman Auston Matthews win his second Rocket Richard trophy while setting a new franchise record for most goals scored in a season with 60.
One major improvement that has played a key role in the Leafs success this season has been the defensive improvements made to this squad. Trades for Ilya Lyubushkin and Mark Giordano compounded with impressive growth from Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren has really solidified the Leafs' defensive depth, something they have been missing for years.
An advantage the Leafs bring into this series is the efficiency of their special teams units. The Leafs have the #1 powerplay in the NHL (27.3%) whereas the Lightning have the #8 powerplay (23.9%). Additionally, the Leafs have the eighth best penalty killing unit (82.1%) whereas the Lightning have the eleventh best (80.6%).
Tampa Bay (51-23-8)
The Lightning will be looking to win their third Stanley Cup in a row after yet another strong season. This team has an ability to look like they're barely trying during the regular season while still managing to comfortably make the playoffs. The Lightning will be looking to take advantage of how experienced their roster has become and how comfortable they are with playoff hockey. They know what it takes to win.
Jon Cooper will hope star players Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos can continue playing at the same level of hockey they were towards the end of the season. Those two will also be rejoined by playoff juggernaut Brayden Point. It’s no secret the Lightning owe a large portion of their success to their annual Vezina trophy candidate Andrei Vasilevskiy. Considered by many to be the best goaltender in the world, Vasi has managed to put up another solid season with a .916 save percentage which would be a fantastic season for most goalies however for him it’s slightly underwhelming… how terrifying. Vasilevskiy provides Tampa Bay with a clear goaltending advantage over Toronto heading into this series due to his consistency and playoff track record.
After last year's championship, Tampa Bay lost all three pieces of their dynamic 3rd line which included Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde, and Barclay Goodrow. In response to this loss, Lightning general manager Julien BriesBois made a couple deadline deals to bolster their offensive depth by bringing in Brandon Hagel from Chicago and Nick Paul from Ottawa.
Keys To The Series
For the Leafs it’s as simple as their best players need to be their best players. Matthews and Marner have been unbelievable talents in the regular season but have struggled to produce at the same level in the playoffs. If those two and Jack Campbell can play at the level they’re capable of, the Leafs definitely have a chance to win this series.
The Lightning need to rely on their playoff experience and remain calm in high intensity situations which is a trait the Leafs definitely have not developed yet. The defending champs have a tremendous ability to flip a switch at any given moment to give them every little boost they need to get an edge on their opponents. If they can continue to play their style of hockey it would be hard to bet against this team.
This series has the potential to provide us with the high flying, hard hitting hockey most hockey fans dream of in a playoff matchup. Both head coaches have made comments in the media about the likelihood of this being a very physical first round which likely favours Tampa however keep an eye out because if they begin to feel the fatigue of back to back playoff runs, that could quickly change.