Nobody said it would be easy (with the Leafs, it never is). In fact, in the Atlantic Division, we knew it would be about as difficult as possible.
With their victory over Boston in the final game of the regular season, the Maple Leafs will officially face off against the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions in round one as they pursue their first playoff series victory since 2004. The series will start on Monday in Toronto with games to follow every other day from there.The Lightning won the best-of-seven series 4-3.
|Date||Home Team||Puck Drop (EST)||TV Network/Result|
|May 2||Toronto||7:30 p.m.||5-0 Win|
|May 4||Toronto||7:30 p.m.||5-3 Loss|
|May 6||Tampa Bay||7:30 p.m.||5-2 Win|
|May 8||Tampa Bay||7:00 p.m||7-3 Loss|
|May 10||Toronto||7:30 p.m.||4-3 Win|
|May 12||Tampa Bay||7:30 p.m.||4-3 Loss (OT)|
|May 14||Toronto||7:00 p.m.||2-1 Loss|
Anthony succinctly summarized the challenge facing the Leafs against Tampa earlier this week: “They can play any which way, and that’s probably the scariest thing about them. They can win on all levels: special teams, skill, grind-it-out defense, elite goaltending — you name it, they can do it.”
The high-level stat breakdown of the two sides this season:
Based on the 2021-22 season numbers, the Leafs have a slight edge on special teams and in their 5v5 control of shot attempts and expected goals; they have a notable edge in goals for per game at 5v5. The Lightning have a notable edge in 5v5 goals against per game (and in 5v5 save percentage, naturally). It goes without saying that there is also the intangible of the mental edge and vast playoff experience of the Lightning, both behind the bench and amongst the respective core players.
Given the margins are fairly tight across the board, at playoff time, it’s generally the safer bet to go with the more playoff-proven team with the better goaltending / goals against numbers (let alone one that has won b2b Cups, with the best goaltender and best defenseman in the league). That said, it is maybe noteworthy how the two goaltenders ended the regular season: Campbell is 7-0-2 with a .915 save percentage, and Vasilevskiy is 5-4-1 with a .904 save percentage (still, it’s Vasilevskiy and the Stanley Cup playoffs we’re talking about here). More pertinent, the Leafs have allowed slightly fewer expected goals against per 60 at 5v5 over the duration of the season (2.34/60 for the Leafs, 2.38/60 for the Lightning).
The difference in the goals-against numbers is entirely down to netminding: .909 at 5v5 for Toronto (27th in the NHL) vs. .922 for the Lightning (11th in the NHL). As a Leafs fan, that will either make you feel better or worse about the team’s prospects in this series depending on how you trusting you are in Campbell’s current ability (post-midseason meltdown + injury) to stay healthy and shut the door at playoff time, having never seen him experience the grind of a full season followed by a playoff run.
The season series between the two teams was an even split, although the Lightning edged the Leafs on points due to their overtime defeat. We can throw out the extra-time result — there is no three-on-three in the playoffs — and call it a win, a tie, and two losses for the Leafs. Here is how the numbers broke down in the four-game regular-season series, although you can take it all with a grain of salt.
|5v5 Goals||10-7 Lightning|
|Shot Attempts||202-186 Leafs|
|TOR Save Percentage||.869|
|TB Save Percentage||.919|
Again, especially with two blowouts in the mix, it’s foolhardy to read too much into four games with significant gaps in time in between and changed lineups from game to game, but the Leafs significantly outshot the Lightning, won the possession and expected goals battle, were outscored 16-12 over all situations and 10-7 at 5v5, and special teams were a wash. There was a massive gap in save percentage in favour of the Lightning.
Look no further than Jack Campbell as the single biggest X-factor in this series. You have to like the odds of the Leafs, with their up-tempo and dominant puck possession game, to generally control the run of play at 5v5 while creating enough looks offensively (they’re top three in scoring chances/60, xGF/60, high-danger chances/60). A huge part of the Leafs’ chances comes down to just how much Campbell can narrow the major gap on paper between him and the goaltender that posted a .937 with five shutouts over the Lightning’s 23-game championship run last Spring (and is a .932 in 48 playoff games spanning the back-to-back Cup runs).
Knowing the Lightning were holding down second place for a good chunk of the 2021-22 season, you’d think for them to be in this position of starting the playoffs on the road, they would at least be backing into the playoffs. But it’s not the case as the Lighting, after a month and a half of .500 hockey that dropped them into third place in the Atlantic (10-10-2), have rattled off a 7-2-0 run in the past couple of weeks.
Steven Stamkos (33 points in 16 games) and Nikita Kucherov (31 points in 16 games) lead the league in point-scoring this month, and the Lightning scored an eye-popping 46 goals over the aforementioned nine-game stretch. Their power play is also clicking at nearly 33% in April (the Leafs’ is down at 17% this month).
All in all, the nature of the threat posed by Tampa no needs no reminding, and the realities of the Atlantic Division have obviously produced a first-round draw from hell despite a remarkable 115-point season by the Leafs. But in addition to a few of the promising indicators in the underlying numbers, there are some other positive spins we could take on this if we really squint.
The Leafs are going to enter this series generally viewed as underdogs despite holding home-ice advantage; as a team that has folded under the pressure of expectations while entering as clear favourites against Montreal (and arguably Columbus), that might not be the worst thing in the world.
Unlike with Boston, it’s a clean slate with no juju at work in terms of haunting recent playoff history between the franchises, as these two clubs have never played each other in the postseason before.
Dating back to March 1, the Lightning are 17-12-2 to the Leafs’ 19-7-3.
Additionally, the last time we saw a team win back-to-back Cups, it was Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017, and while they did win a series before bowing out to Washington in 2018, there is the question of how much gas is left in the tank for a Tampa core that went through two championship runs followed by abbreviated offseasons.
We will get into some of the matchup considerations, x-factors, and keys to the series in the days to come, but we’ll leave you with this for now: After a season in which the Leafs did basically everything in their power to put the latest playoff catastrophe behind them and prepare themselves for this series — shattering all manner of franchise records, individually and collectively — we are about to find out really fast if they’ve eradicated the demons (from under their beds, in their cars, f*** everywhere!) and are truly Cup-contention worthy.