If the standings through 33 games are any indication, the Maple Leafs and Lightning are on a collision course for a 2023 playoff rematch, and if the team-level statistics are any indication, it projects as another long, hard-fought, and evenly-matched first-round series.
Tonight, the Maple Leafs and Lightning play their second game of the 2022-23 season series after an overtime win for Tampa at the start of December (7 p.m. EST, TSN4). The two sides are separated by just .05 in points percentage and one goal in goal differential.
Regular season matchups in a league as parity-filled as the NHL are oftentimes less about where two teams rank in the standings at a given time and more about the timing of when they encounter one another. The Leafs just caught a couple of solid opponents while they’re on an upswing in the Rangers and Capitals, and the opponent’s hot sticks and good goaltending, paired with the Leafs‘ own sticks cooling off along with a bit of a dip from their goaltenders, resulted in consecutive regulation losses for the first time this season.
Falling behind early and playing catch-up hockey has proven to be a losing formula in the past two. In addition to a better start against a hot Lightning team (five straight wins), the Leafs‘ power play needs to find its stride again as the Leafs‘ three goals in the last two games came only at five-on-five (zero for four on the power play). The Leafs now face the hottest penalty kill in the league as Sheldon Keefe looks for a spark with his five-forward top unit.
The Lightning have won five consecutive games and six of seven since centerman Anthony Cirelli (seven points in seven games) returned from injury. They have scored over four goals a game in the month of December (7-1-0) and allowed just 1.88 goals against, both of which are at the top of the NHL this month. While their vaunted power play has remained consistent at 24.1%, their penalty kill has found another level above any other team in the league. In 25 times shorthanded, they’ve allowed just one goal while scoring once themselves for a 95.5% success rate and a zero goal differential.
In terms of lineup changes, Denis Malgin has been traded to Colorado in exchange for Dryden Hunt, and the Leafs will insert Calle Järnkrok for his first game since November 30 on a line with John Tavares and Mitch Marner. Järnkrok had three points in his four games before his groin injury — two assists on Marner goals and one goal assisted by Tavares.
Matt Murray starts in goal opposite Andrei Vasilevskiy and will be looking for revenge after taking the loss in the 4-3 OT defeat to Tampa back on December 3.
Head to Head: Leafs vs. Lightning
In the season-to-date statistics, the Lightning hold the advantage over the Leafs in four out of five offensive categories, but the Leafs hold the advantage over the Lightning in four out of five defensive categories.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the familiar challenge against the Lightning:
We know fully what to expect in terms of the type of game it is and how they play. We are very familiar with them. They are playing very well.
We saw two teams in New York and Washington that were thriving, and Tampa is the same. If you look at it, it is probably no coincidence that they have been hitting their stride since Cirelli returned to the lineup. Everything kind of falls into place for them from there.
They are a lot to contend with. They have elite players at all positions and play a really sound team game.
Keefe on the team’s recent two-game dip:
When we look at the past couple of games, the level of play has been far higher than it has been. Through an 82-game season, I think the games are different in terms of the emotion, the energy, and the intensity of the game. There is an ebb and flow to that no matter who you are playing.
It took us too long to get to that level. As a result, we played from behind. I thought we played pretty well in the games and had far more scoring chances to produce goals than the actual goals that we got, but it just took us a bit to adjust to the game. I didn’t like that part of it.
Today is going to be very similar. It is another team, like we talked about, that is coming in confident and feeling really good about their game. We are maybe a team that was going well and is starting to come down off of that a little bit. Our job is to get back there and maintain it.
Keefe on expectations for Calle Järnkrok in his return:
You never quite know. For some guys, it takes a while to get back up to speed. For some guys, getting a little bit of a break really helps them.
We are getting towards the dog days of winter and the holidays. Guys are starting to get worn down a little bit. He is a guy who hasn’t played. We will see.
Yesterday, I thought he had a lot of life, pop, and bounce in practice. I commented on it that I thought he made the practice better. It is clear how much we missed him. He is a veteran player with a strong skill set who is good at a lot of different things.
We will see how it goes. We like what we had seen from him playing with [Tavares and Marner] before he got injured. He will go right back into that spot tonight.
Jon Cooper on the competitiveness at the top of the Atlantic Division:
It says something about the three organizations that have somehow found a way to be at the top for quite a number of years now. It is just tough. You know you are going to face one or two of those teams if you are fortunate enough to get to the playoffs.
I don’t care what anyone says about our playoff series against the Leafs last year. That could’ve gone either way. Fortunately, it went our way.
They’re tough games to play. Boston is kind of at another level right now, but it can be daunting sitting there with 50 games left knowing that if you keep playing the way we are playing, you might be visiting the team next door again in April.
In saying that, you want to be in those situations. They’re a ton of fun. Our games with the Leafs are always pretty entertaining.
Cooper on what 2022 deadline acquisition Nick Paul has brought to the team that it really needed:
Two goals in Game 7.
Cooper on Keefe’s comment that Anthony Cirelli’s return has been a big factor in the Lightning’s five-game winning streak:
He slots everybody properly now. He slots who he can match up against. To have a guy like Tony be able to play anywhere in the lineup and be able to be a thorn in the side of the key players on the other team takes a little weight off the shoulders of Point, Paul, Stammer, and those guys.
He is the [straw] that stirs the drink. He pulls the team into the fight. He plays a lot of those minutes that you can take away from some of your offensive core and open up for them.
Sheldon is probably right. There is no coincidence we have gone on a run since Tony came back.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#19 Calle Järnkrok – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #64 David Kämpf – #47 Pierre Engvall
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #29 Pontus Holmberg – #28 Joey Anderson
#55 Mark Giordano – #3 Justin Holl
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#78 TJ Brodie – #25 Conor Timmins
Starter: #30 Matt Murray
#35 Ilya Samsonov
Extras: Wayne Simmonds
Injured: Nick Robertson, Jordie Benn, Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, Victor Mete
Tampa Bay Lightning Projected Lines
#38 Brandon Hagel – #21 Brayden Point – #86 Nikita Kucherov
#91 Steven Stamkos – #20 Nick Paul – #17 Alex Killorn
#14 Patrick Maroon – #71 Anthony Cirelli – #79 Ross Colton
#90 Vladislav Namestnikov – #41 Pierre-Edouard Bellemare – #10 Corey Perry
#77 Victor Hedman – #48 Nick Perbix
#98 Mikhail Sergachev – #24 Zach Bogosian
#28 Ian Cole – #81 Erik Cernak
Starter: #88 Andrei Vasilevskiy
#1 Brian Elliot
Extras: Cal Foote