After what felt like an incredibly long regular season, the Maple Leafs and Lightning have finally made it to their 2023 playoff rematch, this time with a 13-point difference and 28-goal gap in goal differential between the two sides in the standings (7:30 p.m. EST, Sportsnet/CBC).

Through all the shuffling that they’ve done due to injuries, trade deadline moves, and load management, the Leafs now have their full group together on the blue line anchored by a shutdown pairing of Jake McCabe – TJ Brodie.

While they’re their most relied-on pair at even-strength and will see quite a bit of Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov tonight, McCabe-Brodie are operating within a pretty balanced makeup on the Leafs‘ backend. These are the time on ice per game (five-on-five) numbers for Leafs defensemen since the trade deadline (21 games total):

  • McCabe – 16.6 
  • Brodie – 17.2
  • Holl – 14.7
  • Rielly – 15.3
  • Giordano – 13.5
  • Liljegren – 13.1
  • Schenn – 12.2
  • Gustafsson – 13

Visible in the numbers above, Luke Schenn, the sixth defenseman tonight in favour of healthy scratches Timothy Liljegren and Erik Gustafsson, has been relied on less than any of the other seven defensemen since he was acquired.

Schenn provides veteran experience and a physical element when defending the cycle and net front at a time of year when coaches often place a premium on those traits. Sheldon Keefe also appears to prefer his style of play as a complement to Morgan Rielly more than he does Liljegren or Gustafsson; if Liljegren or Gustafsson enters the lineup, it likely requires shuffling at least one other pair.

Schenn’s presence in the lineup could bring an important element at playoff time, but it also comes with some risk/tradeoffs when it comes to puck possession. For context, since March 1st:

  • McCabe-Brodie, 153 mins, 57% xGF
  • Giordano-Holl, 134 mins, 55% xGF
  • Rielly-Schenn, 113 mins, 40% xGF

With Schenn in, it’s the most experienced blue line the Leafs have entered the playoffs with in quite some time, with none of their defensemen below the age of 29.

By contrast, Tampa is relying on a pair of rookies, 26-year-old Darren Raddysh and 24-year-old Nicklaus Perbix, to average over 15 minutes a game this year at five-on-five, with Raddysh entering the lineup in March before quickly establishing himself as a part of their top six on the back-end.

Here’s a look at the Lightning’s D-pairs since the trade deadline:

  • Hedman-Perbix, 180 mins, 43% xGF
  • Sergachev-Raddysh, 181 mins, 51% xGF
  • Cole-Cernak, 185 mins, 53% xGF

Balancing out their rookies with their two best defensemen in Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev, the Lightning have basically run three pairs evenly at five-on-five. Since the deadline, their top three pairs only have about a 45-second per-game difference between them. That means there isn’t one “kid” pairing for the Leafs to try to isolate and take advantage of with matchups/offensive-zone starts for their stars, but it’s a Lightning defense that appears more vulnerable all around this year if Tampa’s drop-off in regular-season defensive numbers are any indication.

Having seemingly taken a step back in their ability to lock games down this season, the Lightning have asked more of star netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy, and he’s mostly been up to the task. Per, the Lightning surrendered 2.72 xG/60 this season, 2.37 last season, and 2.07 in 19-20. Vasilevskiy has contributed nearly three more goals above replacement despite playing three fewer games than last season. It goes without saying that over a four-to-seven-game sample, the goaltending battle can completely flip any defensive advantage one team might have over another on paper.

On the Leafs’ side, their bet on Ilya Samsonov this past summer has, thus far, worked out really well, but the only performances anyone will remember are the ones that start tonight. That said, one of the most reassuring aspects of Samsonov’s regular season has been his consistency — he only lost back-to-back games once early in the season and never gave up four or more goals in consecutive starts. Tonight, we’ll begin to find out if the phrase “Sammy never break” really holds up when the chips are down.

Head to Head: Lightning vs. Maple Leafs

In the season-to-date statistics, the Leafs hold the advantage over the Lightning in three out of five offensive categories and five out of five defensive categories.

Game Day Quotes

Sheldon Keefe on his team’s Game 1 win last season and if it influences how he’s preparing for tonight:

It was a funny game. We had a huge penalty kill to get through early in the game — that gave us some life and momentum. Through that, we found our way through, and it was a snoozer of a first period. In the second period, it came alive.

I’m not looking at too much [from last year] in terms of what it means right now. If anything, it’s a sign of how long the series is and the ups and downs that come with playing in a series.

We obviously do a lot of preparation and you know what is at stake, but you try to just make it seem as much like a regular game day as any other. Our team has played some good hockey leading up to this game, so we just want that to continue.

Keefe on the possibility of a lot of penalties early in the series:

We’ve been talking about it for a few weeks now even before playing Tampa last week. We want to make sure we’re staying out of the box and being smart with that as much as we can. We want to be hard and competitive and stand our ground, but we’ve got to be very smart with it.

Keefe on Tavares playing on the wing despite relatively few reps there this season:

To be honest, the first conversation about that probably came about 2-3 years [ago]. It’s something that he originally brought up to me a few seasons back about a couple of things. We were talking through some different combinations. At the time, it was about putting him on the wing with Matthews and Marner and what that looked like.

The center ice position is so important, and he’s so valuable to us there. It wasn’t something we looked at too much. With the addition of O’Reilly, it changed that picture for us.

You have to spend a lot more time on the walls for sure, but it is a good habit for any winger to have [to want to get to the middle]. That’s where things happened at the end of the day. You look at Mitch Marner — he doesn’t spend that much time on the walls. Once we have the puck, he’s playing inside the dots.

The more you can get there is a good thing, so that’s an important quality to have. If we’re really talking about it, the biggest change — and where the positions are the most defined — is in your own end. Otherwise, the game is pretty free-flowing nowadays.

Jon Cooper on the unpredictable nature of Game 1:

You think you know what’s going on [in game one]. And then you get in the trenches, all of sudden you lose 5-0, and you’re like, “What just happened?”

You’re on a high any time you’re going into a playoff series. You feel good about your game and everything, but you just don’t know exactly what’s going to happen.

Do I feel like we’re confident and have good vibes and all that going on? No question, but I have no idea what’s going to happen tonight.

Cooper on his relationship with Sheldon Keefe:

I spoke with him the most during my brief tenure as the [Canadian] Olympic coach when we were putting the team together, so I had communications with him. I thought he was very honest. He wasn’t holding anything back about if his players had weaknesses or anything. I thought he was awesome.

As for his coaching, I told him this last year after our series that he shouldn’t change anything. That series went down to the wire and could have gone either way. I think he’s done a heck of a job with the team. They’ve gone from an offense-first mindset to now playing a full 200-foot game.

I don’t think they get enough credit for how well they play D. When you have offensive stars, that’s all anyone focuses on. He’s found a way to find to get the guys to buy into that end of the ice. I think that’s a sign of a good coach.

Cooper on the loss of Ryan MacDonagh and Ondrej Palat from last year’s team:

When you say those two names, I get sad up here because they meant so much to myself personally and to the organization. But then you can down the road and look at Barclay Goodrow, Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde, and David Savard — you can go down a list of guys that had that impact with us in the playoffs.

With the new guys, you just go down the list. They’ve just got to fit into what we’re doing, but can I sit here and say those other guys won’t be missed? No, they’ll be missed once I retire.

Cooper on the Lightning’s 50-goal scorer, Brayden Point:

Point is just a gamer. He doesn’t take shortcuts. The engine is always going.

He had 50 goals with no empty netters. To me, that’s like the old Brett Hull line where Hull had 86 goals [with no empty netters]. He’s just a hockey player.

The cheer he got when he scored his 50th [was huge]. You can tell he’s an extremely popular teammate because he does all of those dirty things that [not everyone does]. He’ll get dirt under his nails in hockey games.

Cooper on Ryan O’Reilly:

Taking away what he does on the ice, I had him in 2017 at the World Championships, and I couldn’t be a bigger fan of that kid. Now, you [add in] 2019 and the part he played in the Blues winning the Stanley Cup, and it can’t do anything but help their locker room.

He’s been in the league for a while, but he can still play. With what he brings in big moments and what he can do in the faceoff circle, I think he makes guys around him better.

A great add for them, no question.

Cooper on his team’s extremely inconsistent latter half of the season:

One of the toughest stretches I’ve had in recent memory was just after the trade deadline. As a coach, you look at the standings and you think, “It looks like we’re in a pretty good spot and we’re going to play the Leafs,” but at the time, you’re trying to force that out of your head. The reality is you’re staring at [the eventual matchup against Toronto].

We were actually playing pretty well, and then we went through that All-Star break. We had some great stretches after that and some awful ones. Do I chalk some of that up to, ‘”Let’s just wait until we get to the playoffs?” No question. We were playing extremely well until the night we clinched, and then our game slipped a little.

John Tavares on what, if anything, makes the Lightning a different opponent from last spring:

There’s not a whole lot different. They still have their main pieces that have been a part of that group for a while now. Obviously, they lost some really good players that made significant contributions, but they’re still a tremendous hockey team with a great pedigree, and they have tremendous self-belief.

Mark Giordano on Jake McCabe playing his first NHL playoff game:

There will be nerves for sure. I think [he’s] been waiting for this for a long time. I’m excited for him.

I don’t remember too much [of my first playoff game], but I remember playing against a pretty good Detroit team back in the day. The things that really stand out are the atmosphere; the building is a lot louder. Every play feels like it’s more magnified.

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#91 John Tavares – #90 Ryan O’Reilly – #88 William Nylander
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #52 Noel Acciari – #19 Calle Järnkrok
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #64 David Kämpf – #28 Sam Lafferty

#22 Jake McCabe – #78 TJ Brodie
#55 Mark Giordano – #3 Justin Holl
#44 Morgan Rielly – #2 Luke Schenn

Starter: #35 Ilya Samsonov
#60 Joseph Woll

Scratched: Matthew Knies, Wayne Simmonds, Timothy Liljegren, Erik Gustafsson, Erik Kallgren
Injured: Matt Murray, Nick Robertson, Jake Muzzin, Victor Mete

Tampa Bay Lightning Projected Lines

#91 Steven Stamkos – #21 Brayden Point – #86 Nikita Kucherov
#38 Brandon Hagel  – #71 Anthony Cirelli – #17 Alex Killorn
#23 Michael Eyssimont – #20 Nick Paul – #79 Ross Colton
#14 Patrick Maroon – #41 Pierre-Édouard Bellemare – #10 Corey Perry

#77 Victor Hedman – #48 Nicklaus Perbix
#98 Mikhail Sergachev – #43 Darren Raddysh
#28 Ian Cole – #81 Erik Cernak

Starter: #88 Andrei Vasilevskiy
#1 Brian Elliott

Scratched: Zach Bogosian, Haydn Fleury 
Injured: Tanner Jeannot