The Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning will now play a best-of-three series to determine which team moves on to the second round.
As with any 2-2 series, neither team is totally discouraged or elated with what’s happened so far, and Game 5 will change the narrative in a hurry one way or the other.
With a series win, nobody will care all that much about individual points or post-game press conferences. With a series loss, everything will be put under the microscope. At this point, this series feels like a coin flip.
What’s going well
First and foremost, no key Leafs players have been hurt or suspended. After years of losing Nazem Kadri and Jake Muzzin from the lineup, plus the injury to John Tavares last year, that’s a major positive.
Second, the Leafs aren’t getting killed in the goaltending battle, where Jack Campbell and Andrei Vasilevskiy are just about even in terms of save percentage.
On the backend, Jake Muzzin, who was dreadful in the regular season, looks more like his old self. The Muzzin – Brodie pairing looks like the best shutdown duo that we’ve seen in years, as they’re winning their minutes by both goals and expected goals while playing against tough competition. Mark Giordano continues to look like he’s over-qualified for the third pairing.
Up front, Ilya Mikheyev and Pierre Engvall continue to look like strong two-way forwards who the Leafs can trust to protect a lead in the final minutes. After disappointing results in last year’s playoffs, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews each have six points in four games. David Kampf has scored two huge goals, and the Leafs own 67.5% of the game’s five-on-five expected goals when he’s on the ice despite one billion defensive-zone starts.
The penalty kill has looked great at times, and the power play finally looked better in Game 4.
The Leafs are also outplaying Tampa’s top line with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.
Things could certainly be worse.
What isn’t going well and the possible adjustments
John Tavares and William Nylander haven’t been on for a Leafs goal at five-on-five. They clearly need to play better, but the Leafs haven’t really put them in a position to succeed, either. Nylander started the series on a shutdown line, so it wasn’t exactly a surprise that he didn’t rack up points playing with Kampf and Engvall. There was a video clip of him avoiding a check late in Game 4, but I actually thought he was one of the only Leafs who played a respectable game otherwise on Sunday. Other than Game 2, I haven’t hated his game.
Tavares looks slow, but I also don’t think Sheldon Keefe is using him properly. They started him on a line with Ondrej Kase, who hadn’t played a month and a half, and Ilya Mikheyev, who is more of a breakaway specialist offensively. Finding the right player to team up with Tavares should have been a top priority at the deadline, but the Leafs chose to upgrade elsewhere. At this point, I see the Leafs as a team that’s built on having two great center-winger combinations. If you’re going to lose, you go down betting on that.
If I’m Sheldon Keefe, I want David Kampf shutting down one of Steven Stamkos or Brayden Point. Despite his offensive outburst, Kampf can’t take advantage of weaker competition in the same way that Matthews or Tavares can. Through four games, Tavares has spent the most time against the Stamkos line and the second most against the Point line. I don’t love Tavares’ chances of outplaying Kucherov or Point, but I do like his odds against Nick Paul.
Ondrej Kase should move down in the lineup. He’s a shot-heavy player who doesn’t use his linemates overly well, and Tavares was never going to get a ton of chances between Mikheyev and Kase. I’m not sure the Leafs have a perfect option to play with Tavares and Nylander, but I’d prefer Mikheyev, Kerfoot, or even Engvall. There is no reason Kase, who is getting crushed in his minutes so far, can’t play lower in the lineup.
Matthews and Marner got their lunch handed to them in Tampa by the Brayden Point line. We can reasonably expect them to outplay anyone, but you also want to put them in the best possible position to succeed. We’ve seen them match up against Selke candidates like Patrice Bergeron and Phil Danault in the past; I’d much rather see Matthews against Stamkos than Point and Cirelli. Getting back to home ice will help, but if I’m Sheldon Keefe, I strongly consider breaking up Matthews and Marner when the series goes back to Tampa, especially if Tavares and Nylander aren’t yet clicking.
The fourth line has been terrible other than in Game 3. We’ve seen plenty of lineup changes, but Colin Blackwell has been the one constant, and the Leafs own 33.5% of the five-on-five expected goals when he’s on the ice. When we add in the undisciplined penalties, it’s clear that this line has cost them greatly.
I watched a fair amount of Blackwell in New York and Seattle, where he was almost always on the wing. He’s been a little bit better than his on-ice numbers suggest, but like Spezza, he’s playing on the wing in a perfect world. Kerfoot has played well — and some may think that playing him on the fourth line would be a demotion — but playing him at the center might be their best option if they want to roll four effective lines.
Sheldon Keefe needs to find the right combination fast. Playing Kerfoot with Matthews and Marner in Game 1 proved to be a smart decision, but most of his lineup decisions have turned out poorly. The decision to start with the physical fourth line clearly doesn’t look great in hindsight. Finding the right second line was always going to be a critical part of this series, but he hasn’t done that yet. It’s tough to win the matchup game on the road against a team like the Lightning, but it felt like Jon Cooper had his way in Tampa.
I realize that 80% of Leafs fans would like me to start by ripping apart Justin Holl, but the third pairing is not their biggest concern right now. The Leafs own 68% of the five-on-five expected goals when he’s on the ice through two games, and while he was on for an ugly goal against, that play probably doesn’t happen if Ondrej Kase is in the right position. Holl has played well on the penalty kill and has only been on for the one goal at five-on-five.
The Rielly – Lyubushkin pairing has gotten crushed in three straight games. I liked the Lyubushkin trade — and he played well in his first handful of games in Toronto — but that pairing is a free zone entry for the Lightning right now. Lyubushkin’s physical play wins him a lot of fans — a lot of people look at him with rose-coloured glasses — but he’s mostly been a disaster in this series other than his one unexpected assist. Tampa is targeting him on the forecheck, and he’s turning the puck over constantly. No one looks great defending Brayden Point off the rush, but Rielly – Lyubushkin are bleeding scoring chances right now.
Lyubushkin is also their worst defenseman offensively. He’s usually not terrible in his own end, but there’s a reason that all of Brodie, Liljegren, and Holl play over him on the penalty kill. He’s getting torched in transition. I like the physical play, but it’s much easier to shelter a forward like Clifford or Simmonds. I wouldn’t mind him in a sheltered third-pairing role with Rasmus Sandin, but since Sandin’s not playing, I don’t see a great fit for him.
The Muzzin – Brodie pairing looks great, but Rielly might need Brodie more than Muzzin does right now. Timothy Liljegren, who could easily have two goals in two games, has been better than Lyubushkin at defending the rush. The Leafs won Liljegren’s minutes all year against opposing third and fourth lines, and Tampa’s bottom-six is having quite a bit of success right now. I trusted the Giordano – Liljegren pairing more than Rielly – Lyubushkin.
This might not be popular, but I’d consider reuniting Muzzin with Holl. That duo didn’t work well together this season, but much of that was due to Muzzin not being himself. Ultimately, I’m not sure that there is any combination that I’m overly confident in, but I’d definitely get Liljegren back in the lineup. Rielly’s put up plenty of points thus far, but given the contract he just signed, the Leafs need far more from him defensively. Playing like Tyson Barrie in the playoffs isn’t going to cut it.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are a great team. Their players get paid, too, and like the Leafs, they would also like to win this series. There’s a reason that they’ve won back-to-back Cups. While I thought the Leafs looked deflated early on in Game 4, Lightning fans were singing the same tune about their team after Game 1.
The typical fan reaction right now is of the “here we go again” variety. I’ve heard enough complaints about “killer instinct” to last me a lifetime. Fans can think what they’d like, but if the Leafs go into their games with that defeatist mindset, they’re toast. There’s no reason for the Leafs to wave the white flag, and there’s no reason that this team can’t win two of the next three games.
Yanni Gourde is a very good hockey player and a big loss for the Lightning, who haven’t fully replaced Blake Coleman, either. This matchup looks to be relatively even. A lucky bounce or two could very well be the difference. The Leafs need to focus on what they can control and bring their best effort to the table regardless of the bounces, officiating, and outside noise.
If the Lightning win their ninth straight playoff series, make it their hardest-fought victory yet. Having a short memory is a key part of having playoff success. It’s time to put the past in the past. If they stay out of the penalty box and make the most out of their home-ice advantage, I like the Leafs’ chances.