After finishing the regular season with a franchise-record 54 wins and 115 points, the Maple Leafs enter the playoffs with sky-high expectations again this year but face a daunting challenge in the back-to-back Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning (7:30 p.m. EST, Sportsnet/CBC).

We could spend our time lamenting the NHL’s playoff format, but it wouldn’t do the Leafs any good, and it’s worth emphasizing that there was no easy path through an Eastern Conference with eight 100+ point playoff teams. The Leafs had their “easy path” last season, they blew it, and no one is going to feel sorry for them at this point. It’s put-up-or-shut-up time.

That won’t be easy against a team that has maintained its status as a well-rounded and elite franchise despite losing several support pieces following their second-straight championship season.

As we’ve seen in the last few weeks once the playoffs neared, this Lightning team knows how to ramp it up and manage the emotions of the playoffs. We can’t expect anything less than their best.

The last time the Leafs and Lightning squared off, it was a well-documented 8-1 embarrassment for the Leafs. While there were plenty of variables at play with the lineups and parts of the game don’t have much relevance at this point, it was clear that the Lightning were much more aggressive on the forecheck and didn’t let the Leafs find their rhythm within their puck possession game.

Since Sheldon Keefe has taken over the bench, the Leafs have been a possession-focused team that utilizes short passes on their D-zone breakout and often resets their neutral zone breakout if they don’t find the space and numbers they’re looking for on the entry.

Against a Tampa team with a lot of experience bogging teams down with an effective forecheck in the playoffs, the Leafs may need to push the pace when the opportunities present themselves and back off the Lightning forecheck by mixing in the odd stretch play where possible.

Cory Sznajder’s manually-tracked data provides insight into that matchup. Both of these teams are right at the top of the league in in-zone offense and near the bottom of it in rush offense. It certainly feels like a systemic byproduct in the Leafs’ case knowing they have the speed and skill to generate plenty off of the rush.

The rest of the head-to-head micro-stats are below.

The Leafs’ offensive strengths at 5v5 appear to give them a discernible edge in that area of the game, but the Lightning are no slouches in the even-strength offense department and the difficulty of breaking them down in-zone compared to the Leafs is a notable advantage for Tampa. The Lightning’s ability to defend against high-danger passes, rebounds, and deflections all grade out as elite.

This is the biggest challenge for the Leafs’ offense: They need to make life as hard as possible on the world’s best goaltender, but they’ll need to penetrate a Lightning defense that is big, talented, physical, and makes it really hard to get to their net.

Lineup Notes

It was somewhat surprising to see Ondrej Kase in the lineup at practice yesterday. After suffering another concussion in March, the Leafs prioritized Kase taking his time to recover. Sheldon Keefe noted that it was not his intention to keep Kase out of the lineup into the playoffs, but he didn’t feel well enough to play last week.

Hopefully, Kase is in a place where he’s able to play his courageous brand of game and find his way up to playoff speed right off the bat as he’s going to feature on an important line tonight. The Leafs are counting on his energy and jam opposite Ilya Mikheyev as the two flank John Tavares.

After playing a couple of games with them to end the season, Alex Kerfoot will remain with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on the top line in Michael Bunting’s absence. It is not a trio with a ton of reps together, but Kerfoot needs to complement the Leafs’ big duo with a similar presence to Bunting in terms of his energy, greasiness, and ability to complete plays.

The biggest point of debate on Leafs Twitter in the last 24 hours has been the decision to include Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford in the lineup while Jason Spezza misses out as a healthy scratch.

Game 1 figures to be highly physical and emotional, so it looks like the Leafs want to be ready for it with a fourth line that should be able to feed off of the energy of the home crowd and answer the bell against any antics from the Lightning’s belligerent bottom line. But the Leafs are leaving something on the sidelines in terms of Spezza’s offensive touch (which has returned in recent weeks) at both 5v5 and on the second power-play unit, as well as his leadership and proven ability to elevate his intensity level at playoff time.

For Tampa, former Leaf and Stanley Cup winner Zach Bogosian will be the odd-man out on defense. Cal Foote, who has since taken Bogosian’s spot with Mikhail Sergachev, has played an almost identical amount of minutes overall but has handily outperformed Bogosian by the underlying numbers. The 31-year-old Bogosian has been the worst player on Tampa’s roster in terms of goals-above-replacement, albeit with slightly more difficult usage than Foote, who has held his own as a reliable third-pair defenseman.

The fourth-line matchup in this series could be a fun one to watch, primarily due to Tampa’s annoying trio of veterans. Pierre-Edouard Bellmare, Patrick Maroon, and Corey Perry are all known to be aggravating agitators and have built chemistry over 700 minutes together this season. The Leafs can’t let this line be a factor offensively or a distraction for their more skilled lines.

Although Brayden Point centred Tampa’s top offensive line with Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat earlier in the season, captain Steven Stamkos now resides in that spot. As a result, Point will center a new-look line with the reliable Anthony Cirelli and newcomer Brandon Hagel.

Finally, Ross Colton, who has had a massive sophomore season for Tampa, will play with Alex Killorn and another trade-deadline acquisition in Nick Paul. Colton finished the season with 22 goals in 79 games while his underlying numbers were right in the mix at the top of the team alongside the likes of Point, Cirelli, Stamkos, Hedman, and Kucherov.

The starting goaltenders are no surprise: it will be Jack Campbell vs. Andrei Vasilevskiy. On paper, based on the regular-season stat line, it’s an even matchup: Campbell finished the season with a 31-9-6 record with a .915 save percentage while Vasilevskiy finished with a 39-18-5 record and a .916 save percentage. But we all know about the legend that is Playoff Vasilevskiy, and we all know that Campbell has something to prove still at this time of year. If the goaltending battle plays out as even as the 2021-22 regular-season numbers suggest, the Leafs have to like their odds in this series.

Game Day Quotes

Sheldon Keefe on Mitch Marner’s season and the opportunity to rewrite the narrative:

He’s just had an unbelievable season. I think he’s been waiting for this opportunity again, like our whole team has. You’ve got to play the 82 games to get to this point and earn your way here. Mitch has done a terrific job leading us here.

Keefe on the immense pressure on him and the team to win the series:

We’ve got enough to worry about with our opponent and getting our own game right. There’s a great belief in our team. We know what’s at stake. We know what we’ve been through to get to this point. We know what we’re playing for.

We’re playing for our fans, playing for our city, playing for the guys in the room, and playing for each other. It’s a great challenge yet a great opportunity to push past this.

Keefe on the challenge of Tampa’s defense and goaltending combination:

They have the puck a lot and they’re really good in possession. They defend well — it’s a big, strong, physical defense that gets in the way and protects their net very well. That allows a goaltender of that calibre to get comfortable and feel good and make saves. We’ve got a significant challenge to get to him, but we’ve got to look to make him uncomfortable.

Keefe on the team’s mindset heading into his first playoff game in Toronto in front of a packed arena:

Excited. Relaxed. I think they’re just looking forward to playing. With the maturity of our team knowing we’ve been building towards this, and just the quick turnaround — we’ve gone from game 82 to an off day to practice and here we go — there’s not too much time to overthink this.

We’ve been talking about our opponent and we’ve prepared for them, but really, it’s coming got the rink and being ready to play a hockey game.

Keefe on including veterans Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford in the lineup for Game 1:

I mean, we talked to them over the last number of weeks about what we need from them and what the expectations are. Part of what they bring, of course, is the veteran experience and the poise they have, but it’s more than that.

In Clifford’s case, we’ve found that since him and Blackwell have come together — as we’ve tried to really get our fourth line to come together — we’re faster, we’re more physical, and we’re responsible defensively. These are all things that come into play when we make decisions about how the fourth line is going to look.

Keefe on the decision to scratch Jason Spezza for Game 1:

It’s not easy. [He’s] a veteran guy who wants to win as bad or more than anybody. He’s going to factor in for sure, but this is a pattern that we’ve been following for quite some tim here now.

We’ve liked the fact that the lineup [has changed] and we’ve moved things out on the fourth line, but this is the look that we like here for tonight.

Keefe on how much he takes from his team’s 2-2-0 record against the Lightning in the regular season:

The results I don’t think are too relevant. A couple of the games are early in the season and the teams look a little bit different. There were two late games. One week, we have a good game and a great result. The other week, they have a great result and a great game.

The results I don’t focus too much on. There are things inside of it, of course: how the teams are playing, how they match up.

The biggest thing about playoffs is everything equalizes. When you’re going through 82 games, sometimes you’ll get a team when they’re tired or [someone] is hurt, or one team is playing great or maybe not so well. There is travel [as well]. When the playoffs start, you’re on the same schedule, and for the most part, the teams are equal in terms of what they’re going through.

Keefe on his comfort in playing Ondrej Kase despite the fact that he hasn’t seen game action since March 19th:

[Firstly], he’s just a very good player and makes a difference on our team when he’s in. I would have loved if things lines up that we could have played him last week in some of those games. It just didn’t work out that way.

He just wasn’t comfortable at that point with the amount of practice and stuff. He needed to go through a process there. He’s at a point now where he feels good and he feels comfortable.

We think we’re a better team when he’s in and playing. He’s looked really good in our practices as of late. I’ve watched that very closely. He looks like a guy that’s ready to come in and help us.

Lightning head coach John Cooper on facing the Leafs in the playoffs for the first time:

We’ve met other teams in our division many times, but this is a first for us. Probably a long time coming. Two similar teams that have been near the top of the standings for a number of years now.

I think it’s good for hockey. This is two established teams that have been at the top of their game for a while now, and it’s about time we met in the playoffs.

Cooper on whether he expects some of the series to be highly offensive:

When you play a team multiple times, one of the games is bound to be like that. I don’t expect the series to be like that, though. The Leafs play a sound game on both ends of the ice. I’d like to say we do, too.

You know how it is in the playoffs. Usually, you take on penalty off the board a side. It comes down to it a lot of times as a five-on-five game. Whoever’s team game is rolling the best and probably stays a little more disciplined probably has a bit of an edge.

Cooper on how physical he expects the series to be:

I don’t know. We have kind of been through all of the wars. Rewind the tape to this time last year when we played Florida. I described it as two cars going 100 miles an hour right at each other. Who was going to flinch first?

The first round is always chaos. It is organized chaos. The guys are pumped up. Everybody is jacked. Usually, the teams are somewhat healthy or as healthy as they are going to be in the playoffs. Whatever that extra 5-10% you have inside of you, you get it in the playoffs.

Everybody’s determination goes up with their want to win. What words did he use? Borderline violent? Wow. I think guys have a lot more courage. If that is what makes them that way…

But it should be fun. Let’s take a step away from that and start going through Kucherov, Matthews, Stamkos, Marner, Point, Nylander, Tavares. And then you start going on the backend. These are the stars of the game. I hope people appreciate what these guys do and the war they are going to go through. It should be a lot of fun.

Cooper on how the Lightning were able to rebound and win two straight Cups after their sweep at the hands of Columbus in 2019:

That probably comes from some of the fact that we had all been together before. Kneejerk reactions are not a staple of our organization.  Did we have to tweak some things? The thing that needed tweaking most was what was between our ears. We had to check our egos at the door.

We pretty much hit every record you could possibly hit. If you hit 62 wins in a season and you get swept, what is the first word that comes to mind? It is embarrassing. You look yourself in the mirror, and say, “Do we really want this to happen? We have the group to do this, but this is what it takes.”

Go rewind the tapes of teams that have won Stanley Cups and see what they look like after a playoff series. That is what we needed to look like. The boys took it to heart.

Give them all the credit. I am just the guy that stands there. Those are the guys who have to go out and do all the work. They made the commitment. I guess we haven’t lost since.

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#15 Alex Kerfoot – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #91 John Tavares  – #25 Ondrej Kase
#88 William Nylander – #64 David Kampf – #47 Pierre Engvall
#47 Kyle Clifford – #11 Colin Blackwell – #24 Wayne Simmonds

#44 Morgan Rielly – #46 Ilya Lyubushkin
#8 Jake Muzzin – #78 T.J. Brodie
#55 Mark Giordano  – #37 Timothy Liljegren

Starter: #36 Jack Campbell
#50 Erik Källgren

Healthy Scratches: Justin Holl, Jason Spezza, Nick Abruzzese
Injured: Michael Bunting, Rasmus Sandin, Petr Mrazek

Tampa Bay Lightning Projected Lines

#18 Ondrej Palat – #91 Steven Stamkos – #86 Nikita Kucherov
#38 Bradon Hagel – #21 Brayden Point – #71 Anthony Cirelli
#17 Alex Killorn – #79 Ross Colton – #20 Nick Paul
#14 Patrick Maroon – #41 Pierre-Edouard Bellmare – #10 Corey Perry

#77 Victor Hedman – #44 Jan Rutta
#27 Ryan McDonagh – #81 Erik Cernak
#98 Mikhail Sergachev – #52 Cal Foote

Starter: #88 Andrei Vasilevskiy
#1 Brian Elliot

Healthy Scratches: Riley Nash, Zach Bogosian
Injured: None