It almost seems a little surreal to finally be writing about the playoffs. After last season’s first-round exit, Leafs fans have waited a full year to find out what this 2021-22 season really has in store for them.
As we all know, the Leafs could have gone 82-0 this season, and the playoff question would have hung over their heads like a dark cloud.
Fair or not, that’s what happens when a team loses in the first round five years in a row and the core of the roster has essentially been intact for every single one of them (save for John Tavares, who essentially only played in two of those five exits — that is important to note, to be clear).
In terms of what the Leafs accomplished in the regular season, we couldn’t ask for much more. They set a franchise record in points, Auston Matthews set a franchise record in goals, and Mitch Marner played like a top-10 player in the league for pretty much the entire season. In essentially every meaningful category, the Leafs were an upper-echelon team.
Their reward? The Tampa Bay Lightning in round one.
What do the numbers tell us? The Leafs are a little better offensively, at controlling play, and on special teams. The gaps aren’t massive, but they exist. On the flip side, the reason so many people fear Tampa Bay is visible above: They allow less defensively and have a better save percentage.
Even if it was close, nobody is really betting on any goalie over Andrei Vasiliveskiy. These are the back-to-back champions we are talking about. They are very good. But so are the Leafs.
In terms of the regular-season series, Toronto went 2-2-0 against Tampa Bay during the season, with one of those wins coming in overtime (so the Lightning were 2-1-1 against the Leafs). Each team handily won one game. The other two games saw Tampa up one in the final minute. The Leafs tied it late and then won one of them in overtime. In the other, Tampa closed it out with an empty netter.
Here are the head-to-head stats:
|5v5 Goals||10-7 Lightning|
|Shot Attempts||202-186 Leafs|
|TOR Save Percentage||.869|
|TB Save Percentage||.919|
Again, we see similar themes here. The Leafs appear slightly better at 5v5, the special teams netted out on an even draw, and the regular season results are slightly in favour of Tampa. Andrei Vasilevskiy is a difference-maker and can completely swing a series all on his own. Getting to him and making his life difficult is of the utmost importance for Toronto. Any advantage the Leafs have on paper – and I think there are a few if we look at it objectively – he can negate them all.
That puts pressure on the Leafs to get to him, and it puts pressure on Jack Campbell and the team defense in order to mitigate the gap between the two netminders in this series.
That is just the high-level overview of the series, though. Let’s dig a little deeper into the key matchups that will decide the outcome.
Leafs vs. themselves
Any playoff discussion about the Leafs at this stage should start with this key point.
This is a really, really good team. They have proven that throughout the season. Hardly anyone would argue otherwise.
I’d also argue the Leafs have been outcoached in every playoff series since the Washington loss (in that series, I simply thought Frederik Andersen was below average). Stacking up the top line despite questionable depth, overworking and gassing the top players, under-performing special teams, tinkering with winning lineups for no reason, inserting young players who have barely played all season, giving Montreal the Matthews – Danault matchup pretty well all series… You name it, the Leafs’ coaching staffs have done it at this point.
In the Amazon Prime series last year, we heard Paul MacLean speak into existence a foreshadowing quote: “They’ve got demons in their heads, they got ‘em in their fuckin’ beds, they got ‘em in their cars… everywhere they turn, there is a fuckin’ demon.”
The internal battle the Leafs are facing – the coaching staff, the players, management, the uncertainty that fans even have in the arena – is all very real. Pretending it doesn’t exist at this point is burying your head in the sand. They must acknowledge and fight through it together as a team.
If the early look at the lines was any indication, we might already be seeing the coaching staff overthinking matters to some degree.
Jason Spezza has legitimately been one of the only Leafs players who has actually shown up in the playoffs the past few years. He appears slated to be a potential healthy scratch in favour of Kyle Clifford for Game 1.
Ondrej Kase hasn’t gotten through a full game since March 17 – it’s May 2 — and he’s possibly walking right back onto the second line.
The exact reason we argued for trying out different line one combinations – despite loud objections from many – is already playing out before our eyes with Michael Bunting doubtful to play Game 1.
Alex Kerfoot has spent all of 26 minutes alongside both Matthews and Marner at 5v5 this season. He might be up on line one to start this series, according to yesterday’s practice lines.
Even everyone’s favourite whipping boy is slated to be a healthy scratch, and while many are welcoming it with open arms, the fourth-overall Toronto Maple Leafs spent all season with Justin Holl averaging the third or fourth-most time on ice per game (among defenseman) while anchoring their very good penalty kill. He looks to be a healthy scratch.
One could argue others outplayed him and/or he played his way off the team, but he logged heavy minutes all season in tough situations and legitimately helped their penalty kill become so effective this season. Even in April, Holl was third among defensemen in time on ice per game, and only TJ Brodie played more on the penalty kill each night.
The Leafs had a formula all season, and they may instantly deviate from it in Game 1 of the playoffs. However you want to slice it, it’s indicative of a poor process somewhere along the line.
Maybe all the moves pan out and we look back at these few paragraphs in a few weeks’ time, laugh to ourselves, and start discussing the particulars of round two. However, there are some very fair criticisms that can already be made, and the series hasn’t even started yet.
Both teams vs. the injury bug
Injuries are always a critical factor in any playoff run (see: John Tavares missing the entire series and Jake Muzzin leaving in Game 6). They are already a big question mark for this series, on both sides of the matchup.
When will Michael Bunting be back? Can Ondrej Kase successfully return? Can Jake Muzzin actually finish a playoff series this year? Auston Matthews missed some time in April for what sounds like an injury that will, at minimum, nag him the rest of the way. Will that have an impact?
We are already seeing the lines scrambled and new combinations working around the injuries. That is a natural part of the playoffs. It’s not just about who is healthy, but also how the healthy group is optimized in order to give the team the best possible chance to win.
The injury question marks are not exclusive to Toronto, though. Brayden Point sat out two of the final six games of the season. He scored just one goal in the final 12 games of the season and no 5-on-5 goals since April 1. How far from 100% is he?
Point has led their team in goals in their back-to-back Cup championships. If he is far less than 100% — and we don’t know that right now — that is a real problem for Tampa Bay.
That’s without even mentioning the general wear and tear of the back-to-back runs. Maybe they don’t run out of gas due to shortened COVID seasons, but it’s fair to ask the question.
The Matchup Game
The matchup game in this one is going to be a fascinating chess match. The assumption has been that Victor Hedman will go head-to-head against Auston Matthews, but I’m not entirely sure that will be the case.
For starters, it literally never happened this season. In the first two games, it was Ryan McDonagh taking the head-to-head matchup (and one of those times, it was McDonagh alongside Zach Bogosian!). When the Leafs blew out Tampa, McDonagh was injured, and it Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak that took on the matchup. Matthews scored three goals against Sergachev at 5v5 that night.
When Tampa blew out the Leafs 8-1, Matthews wasn’t playing.
Tampa has often run the McDonagh – Cernak pairing as its shutdown pairing in the past two years. That frees up Victor Hedman a little bit offensively.
The Leafs have often done something similar with a Jake Muzzin-led shutdown pairing that allows Morgan Rielly to play slightly easier matchups so he can be set up well offensively.
Even more interesting is that Tampa Bay appears to be loading up a top shutdown line.
— Joe Smith (@JoeSmithNHL) May 1, 2022
That Hagel – Point – Cirelli unit has to be earmarked for the top matchup against Matthews, Marner, and whoever is on the left side. Is Sheldon Keefe going to give them that matchup freely or is he going to use last change on home ice to try to move them away from Tampa’s top checkers?
Last year, Keefe was cavalier when noting he wasn’t afraid to put Matthews and Marner up against anyone — fair enough, as they have lit the league on fire for a few seasons now. They combined for one goal in seven playoff games last year, though. Will he feel the same way this time?
Let’s say Tampa Bay generally does get their matchup (and even if the Leafs try to avoid it, they will be able to get their checkers out against them pretty often). How do the rest of the matchups play out from there?
A line with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov is obviously a massive headache. Who is going to take on that matchup? Is it a John Tavares-led line with Ilya Mikheyev on one side and a maybe healthy Ondrej Kase on the other? Is it a David Kampf-led line with Pierre Engvall on one side and William Nylander on the other? Neither sounds ideal on paper.
The Jake Muzzin – TJ Brodie pairing will take this matchup on defense, but they need help up front here, too. You almost have to ponder reuniting a very good checking line of Mikheyev – Kampf – Engvall for that matchup and pitting Tavares (along with Mark Giordano and Timothy Liljegren) against the Alex Killorn – Ross Colton – Nick Paul line.
It’s a tough task no matter what, and I can’t say it enough: These are the defending (x2) Cup champs. From what we have seen on paper from both lineups, Tampa Bay is set up for a very clear matchup situation at forward.
On the Leafs’ side of things, the assumption is that Tavares will match up against Stamkos. Mikheyev is very good, and if Kase is healthy, this line has a chance to do some damage alongside the Leafs’ top shutdown pairing. That would mean a third line featuring Nylander’s unit against Tampa’s third line — a matchup in which he needs to eat. He showed us last year that he can do it.
I wouldn’t sleep on the Leafs’ third pairing here, either. Giordano and Liljegren are talented offensively. It helps to make up for the lack of offense of David Kampf and gives Nylander some facilitators to spring him offensively.
It could low-key make a big difference. If the Leafs win this matchup in this type of setup — forcing Tampa to start manoeuvring to counter it — the Leafs gain the initial upper hand.
We often hear that playoff time is about the importance of your best players delivering — that is true — but the margin for error in this series is so thin that every little edge helps. Even if it just tilts one game, it’s one game in a first-to-four-wins series.
Most people would prefer a Patrick Maroon – Pierre Edouard Bellemare – Corey Perry line compared to Kyle Clifford – Colin Blackwell – Wayne Simmonds. It would be hard to argue otherwise. One thing I will note, though, is that the purpose and identity of the Leafs fourth line is very clear.
Can they bring some energy? Can they bring some physicality? Can they get the crowd rocking at Scotia? They have the potential to generate some sort of momentum-swinging shift.
However, Tampa’s fourth line has the real potential of doing all of that plus scoring. Perry scored 19 goals and 40 points this season. Even Maroon chipped 11 goals along with nine for Bellemare. They have been together basically all season, too. The Leafs are still largely experimenting with their fourth line combinations.
Maybe both lines get up to some antics and it swings a bit of both ways, but the Leafs certainly can’t afford for Tampa’s fourth line to outscore theirs by three or four goals. It needs to be respectable.
A common theme of the Leafs’ early playoff exits: They had the second-best goalie entering every series. That will again be the case this year. There’s not much to say here that most don’t already know. If you could take any goalie right now in the league in a playoff series, it would almost certainly be Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Jack Campbell has been good as a Leaf — sometimes great. In the playoffs last spring, I thought he was generally good, although he’d obviously want the Game 7 opening goal back. He needs to go head-to-head with Vasilevskiy in this one and at least make it respectable.
No team can make up for a massive goaltending disadvantage in the playoffs.
Victor Hedman vs. Morgan Rielly
I think we would talk about Playoff Rielly a lot more if the Leafs enjoyed some team success. He has generally been very good in the playoffs and has seemingly been one of their only players with a sense of occasion when the chips are down.
We outlined above how both teams deploy a shutdown pairing to free up their offensive studs on the blue line. We already know both will quarterback the top power-play units. If you’re either team, you don’t want to be looking at a situation where one is outscoring the other by a notable margin, or where one is leading a successful power-play unit while the other is faltering.
Hedman is going to use his big shot, size, and vision to be a difference-maker. Rielly is going to use his skating and passing to be a difference-maker. Hedman was third among defensemen in points with 85 (and 20 goals!). Rielly was tied for sixth with 68 points. Over the last four seasons, they rank third and sixth, respectively, among defensemen in points.
These are two of the elite point-producing defensemen in the league. Who is going to outshine the other?
The Leafs’ special teams have been great over the course of the season, but they struggled in April. They officially finished 16th in power-play percentage and 31st in penalty kill percentage in the last month.
You can say it’s a small sample size — and players were in and out of the lineup, plus the games didn’t matter — but in each of Keefe’s first two seasons, the team struggled on special teams leading up to the playoffs and carried it through the postseason.
They don’t really deserve the benefit of the doubt. They will need to prove this is a blip on the radar and that they will be locked, loaded, and ready to go (for what it’s worth, I did think the power play flashed promise and missed a lot of chances in April; the stats bear that out, too).
On the flip side, Tampa Bay owned the second-best power play in April and the 28th-ranked penalty kill. Last year, Tampa’s power play clicked at 32.4 percent in their Cup run. In their first-round against the Panthers, in particular, they scored eight power-play goals – a big factor in the series.
In the next round against Carolina, Tampa went 7/16 on the power play, and the Canes’ penalty-killing coach is now running the Leafs’ penalty kill. Either Dean Chynoweth will have the book on them, or Tampa his number (like the Leafs, Carolina had a very good regular-season penalty kill in 2020-21).
The Leafs will need to be respectable in this department. There’s some evidence that they can slightly carry play at 5v5, but if you give it all back and then some in man-advantage situations, it’s moot.
For my money, these are two of the top six or so teams in the league. That makes this series almost a coin toss. The margins are razor-thin.
It will come down to the factors we outlined above. In my view, the path to a Leafs win comes down to Matthews and Marner finally breaking through as well as Campbell and the team defense closing the gap between the two goalies.
For Tampa, it starts with Andrei Vasilevskiy. It also goes through Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli’s success in their matchup against the Matthews line, and the rest of their top producers scoring at 5v5 or on the power play.
To be the best, you have to beat the best. The Leafs certainly aren’t getting shortchanged in that department this year.
Bring on playoff hockey.