For at least a month – probably longer – we’ve known the Toronto Maple Leafs are making the playoffs and will finish third in the division. What remains unknown – and will come right down to the wire – is who their opponent will be in the first round.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are currently up two points on the Boston Bruins, who have a game in hand on Tampa. So far this season, the Leafs are 1-2-1 against the Lightning and 3-1-0 against the Bruins.
So who would you rather play in round one?
A month and a half ago, Gus looked at this very question of who would you rather the Leafs play round one. A lot has changed since then, though. Let’s take a look at an overall comparison here first:
|Goals per game||3.29||3.28||3.51|
|5v5 Goals||174 (2nd)||155 (8th)||178 (1st)|
|Goals Against per game||2.82||2.49||2.83|
|PP Percent (rank)||23.7% (3rd)||22 (7th)||24.7 (2nd)|
|PK Percent (rank)||82.5 (8th)||82.7 (6th)||76 (26th)|
|Shots per game||32.2||32.4||32.5|
|Shots Against per game||33.9||29.2||32.8|
|Corsi 5v5 (rank)||49.8% (18th)||53.83% (2nd)||51.65% (7th)|
|Fenwick 5v5 (rank)||48.7% (21st)||54.01% (1st)||51.37% (11th)|
|Shooting Percentage 5v5||9.07%||8.06%||9.28%|
|Save Percentage 5v5||92.65%||92.74%||92.96%|
Beyond the team results, there are matchup considerations to keep in mind — that’s what playoff series are all about. The Bruins and Lightning are quite different in how they would deploy personnel. Boston has an elite two-way line to matchup with Matthews, whereas Tampa Bay has an elite number one defenseman, plus Ryan McDonaugh and Anton Stralman.
A Boston series will be about line matching through and through. They will want Bergeron against Matthews, and the Leafs will want Kadri against Bergeron. The Bruins then have a scoring line with David Krejci and a grind line centered by Riley Nash. Home ice advantage with the last change could be a big deal in this series.
Tampa has so far let the Kadri-Stamkos matchup happen. They don’t seem to mind one bit; Cooper doesn’t exactly run from it. That leaves Matthews for a Tyler Johnson-led second line (and he has been strong in the playoffs with 42 points in 47 games). Tampa also has a veteran grind line with Chris Kunitz – Cedric Paquette – Ryan Callahan. They will be much more focused on getting Hedman out against Matthews, which is admittedly easier to do from a matching perspective.
Where the Bruins can’t match that top end of the Lightning’s defense, the Lightning can’t match the type of forward line matching the Bruins can trot out.
And this shows in the team results – Tampa has a high-octane offensive attack leading in goals per game, even strength goals, the best shooting percentage in the league, as well as a very good power play. The Bruins are an elite possession team and give up significantly fewer goals per game than Tampa or the Leafs while also giving up a low amount of shots per game.
All three teams have really good goalies that are all capable of stealing a series. Andrei Vasilevskiy leads the league in wins and is sure to be a Vezina finalist by the end of the year, but in 20 games since February 1, he has posted a mere .902 save percentage (Andersen is at .907% and Rask is at .911%). Every game Vasilevskiy plays from here on out will be a new career-high, and whether the workload is catching up to him is a legitimate question at this point. Rask has only played 49 games and is humming along as a veteran who has been through the grind before.
If you’re the Leafs, you’re looking at an offensive matchup trading chances with a team that has a power play just as good as yours — but a notably worse penalty kill — in Tampa Bay. In Boston, you’re looking at a series where the opponent will have a much heavier line matching strategy in place, play grinding hockey, and try to slow the game down as much as possible. Looking at the Leafs‘ main strengths, they’re offense and depth up front. You can put their forward group one through about 15 up against anyone in the league.
Truthfully, the Leafs will have a legitimate chance at winning no matter who they play. It’s not as if one opponent represents a golden opportunity and the other doom and gloom. But if I were the Leafs, I’d want that all-offense matchup, with Andersen up against Vasilevskiy, and test how much the Lightning goaltender has left in the tank once the playoffs begin.
– In the midst of Mike Babcock’s first season with the team, he was asked about the best teams in the league. He took a newspaper and circled the teams in the standings with the best goal differential. Last season, the team was only +9 in that category by the end of the year. This season, the Leafs are sixth in goal differential. The five teams ahead of them? Tampa Bay, Boston, Winnipeg, Nashville, and Las Vegas.
– I noticed Kasperi Kapanen’s tape job and how he only tapes the tip of his blade, similar to Dany Heatley/Eric Lindros. You give up grip on handling the puck, but if you watch him handle it, he’s often just pushing it ahead and using his speed (though he did have a shift against Buffalo in the first where he circled the zone with the puck on a string). When players only have a certain part of their blade taped or something unique marked, most of the time it’s because that’s where they like to have the puck when they shoot, or they use it as a marker to start their shot. Kapanen likes that little snapper where he pulls it in tight and really rips it.
Kapanen, by the way, is playing to a near 17-goal pace this season with no power play time. Adding him in was like the Leafs trading for a speed weapon/penalty killer/goal scorer. Related: Michael Grabner cost the Devils a prospect and a second-round pick.
– Similarly, Travis Dermott is already fourth on the Leafs defense in scoring with 13 points (he’s nine points behind Hainsey, so he won’t catch third). Dermott has settled in on the third pairing playing with Polak and he’s averaging 16:25 minutes per game in March. It’s a sheltered role without a big workload, so it’s not like trading for a top-four defenseman, but it is like trading for a legitimate piece on the blue line for this season. Brandon Davidson cost the Islanders a third round pick.
– Conversely, I know that Tomas Plekanec wasn’t necessarily acquired for scoring, but 12 games without a point to start his career is less than ideal. Last season, the Leafs gave up a second for Brian Boyle, who then put up 3 points in 21 regular-season games (but did have two in six playoff games). It has been back-to-back years giving up second round picks, and the total point production so far is five points in 39 games. Against Buffalo, Plekanec had a chance in all alone off of a Kapanen play and got robbed – hopefully he gets one, gains some confidence, and gets on a bit of a roll.
– Before March, Ron Hainsey averaged 21:59 per night and had .33 points per game. Since March 1, it’s down a minute to 20:45 and at .1 points per game. His game obviously isn’t predicated on scoring, but he is slowing down out there. For the first half of the season, a lot of people were wondering about the huge shorthanded time on ice. It might be catching up to him now.
“His shot — we always joke around with him about how it’s not a hard one, but he can aim the puck really well. We see it every day in practice. He finds open spots.”
– Mitch Marner on Nazem Kadri’s goal scoring after hitting 30 goals again
I think what has really changed Nazem Kadri is the move to the middle of the ice on the power play. He has that tip shot down pat. He used to play the half-wall, which is what he did in the OHL, and his shot is just not good enough to do that in the NHL. But he drives the net hard, is happy to get dirty goals, and he has great hand-eye coordination.
“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about that (record). You do that after the season and after your career, or think about the things you might have been able to accomplish. One time, I’d won a championship or something and sitting by the lakeside fireplace having a rum, my dad was having a Scotch. I said, ‘Things are going pretty good,’ kind of tooting my own horn and he said, ‘When was that again?’ In other words, what’s coming next?”
– Mike Babcock on the Leafs potentially setting a franchise wins record
The best part of what Mike Babcock does is his ability to stay focused on the right things and not allow for complacency to creep in. Even against Buffalo, the team didn’t play that bad — they just didn’t bury — but he took that opportunity to say the group is too loose. He gets the bigger picture. He’s also playing with house money right now and knows it because his team’s playoff spot isn’t impacted by what he does the rest of the season.
“Been waiting all year for it and kind of wish it was tomorrow it started, but (shrugs)… Just got to keep playing these games and try to get more points.”
– Jake Gardiner on waiting for the playoffs
Pretty much sums it up at this point.
Video Tidbit of the Week
I did not think Andreas Johnsson had that kind of speed burst in him.
Against Nashville on the road in a back-to-back, Babcock really sheltered him (he played under 10 minutes), but in his other full games, Johnsson has played at least 12:15 every time. He has shown flashes on the penalty kill, which will help him pull ahead of Leivo in the pecking order in Babcock’s eyes. He also had an eye-popping seven shots on net against the Habs. Although he’s small, he has shown no hesitation getting in on the forecheck and going to the dirty areas of the ice to produce.
It’s also important to remember Johnsson is turning 24 this year – you have to show something by this age to avoid being labelled as a tweener.
5 Things I Think I’d Do
1 – I think I would be looking at possibly giving Ron Hainsey some rest here, at least for one game. The Leafs play three games in four nights coming up; why does he need to play in all of them? Get Carrick in for a game and have him recharge the batteries a bit.
2 – I think the back-to-back games coming up this weekend will be a good opportunity to have everyone sitting check back in – Josh Leivo, Dom Moore, and having both of Andreas Johnsson and Leo Komarov play (probably). This weekend is a good chance to rest a few guys with bumps and bruises before a Monday – Thursday – Saturday end to the season to gear-up for the playoffs.
3 – I think, as much as I like William Nylander at center, I really like him with Auston Matthews. He acquitted himself well at center when Matthews down. This subject is a deeper dive for the offseason, but he can clearly play center. He might be a solution should Tyler Bozak leave and they aren’t able to bring in outside help. That said, having him with Auston Matthews will be tough to split. They scored a really nice goal together on Saturday, obviously, but just having that star power combined brings out the best in both of them. This has been one of the best lines in the league. I’d be really hesitant to split them up, but I am also curious about how Nylander’s game might grow in the middle of the ice.
4 – I think I’d consider switching Kasperi Kapanen and Connor Brown on the forward lines. Kapanen’s speed is making him a threat every time he touches the ice. Brown is an honest, hardworking player, but the production just hasn’t been there (27 points), and he’s playing softer minutes on a scoring line right now.
5 – I still think I’d look at swapping Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak on the defense pairings.