The Maple Leafs return to the scene of their first playoff series victory in 19 years when they visit Tampa Bay on HNIC (7:00 p.m. EST, Sportsnet Ontario/West, CBC, NHLN).

Our own Alex Drain sets the stage for the Tampa Bay Lightning entering the 2023-24 season:

Nowhere has the NHL salary cap worked better to crush 1970s/80s style dynasties than in Tampa, where the once-unstoppable Lightning squad that won consecutive Stanley Cups in 2020 and 2021 has steadily been drained of talent due to the cap purge. First, it was their checking line with Yanni Gourde and Blake Coleman. It was then defensive stalwart Ryan McDonagh and savvy winger Ondrej Palat. Now, this past offseason, it was the hard-nosed Alex Killorn, the steady Ian Cole, and power-play specialist Corey Perry. The result is the star players on the roster are no longer supported by mind-blowing depth. All the complementary pieces that made the Lightning so great have been replaced with unappetizing replacements.

In September, it was announced superstar goalie Andrei Vasilveskiy would miss the first chunk of the season with injury, with a return projected somewhere between American Thanksgiving and the start of January 2024. That would put him out for anywhere between 25 to 35 games, give or take. Of all the stars on the Lightning, Vasilevskiy is the one they could not afford to miss, partially because the team has chronically under-funded the backup goalie spot due to Vasilevskiy’s enormous salary, but also because the Lightning have become dangerously reliant on Vasilevskiy in recent years.

Last season, the Lightning finished below the Ottawa Senators in expected goals against per 60 at 5v5, defensive metrics that sagged especially in the second half of the season. It didn’t matter, however, because Vasilevskiy is an elite goalie who made up for those cracks in the foundation. Some of the defensive struggles were due to the defensive depth chart, which is not nearly as formidable as it once was, but it also seemed that the Lightning were conserving energy for the postseason as their defense was much stronger against Toronto in the playoffs. This season, they won’t be able to do the same knowing making the playoffs is not assured in a deep and competitive Eastern Conference.

If Tampa plays with the same level of defense they did in the final couple months of last season during the first few months of this season only with backup goalies in net, it will sink them into a standings hole that will be hard to pull out of. Whether their goalie is Jonas Johansson (the current backup) — who is among the worst goalies in the cap-era NHL — or someone claimed off waivers, the Lightning will need to protect and support that goalie. They will need to exert more effort defensively and play a more structured game, recognizing that effort will need to be expended in October and November or else there will be no May and June for which to conserve energy.

This Lightning lineup is aging — Victor Hedman (turning 33 in December), Steven Stamkos (also 33), and Nikita Kucherov (30) — and they have to do increasingly larger shares of the work on a nightly basis when the bottom six now consists of the likes of Luke Glendening and Tyler Motte. Whether those great stars have enough juice to keep the team treading water until Vasilevskiy returns will determine their season.

Without Vasilevskiy, the Lightning are 2-2-1 with a 26th-ranked .883 save percentage (all situations) as journeyman Jonas Johansson has carried the load. The Leafs‘ save percentage, with a fully healthy complement of goaltenders, is actually worse through four games at just .860.

Two goals against in Florida was Toronto’s best defensive showing of the season so far, but they scored just once for the second straight game (both losses). As the Leafs look to rediscover some of their offensive magic of the first two games of the season without the significant concessions at the other end of the rink, the top six will remain the same from the start of the last game; shifted down the lineup mid-game in Florida, Tyler Bertuzzi returns to the top line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, and Matthew Knies remains with John Tavares and William Nylander.

It’s in the bottom six where Sheldon Keefe will roll out some new combinations in search of improved depth contributions. Fraser Minten looks to be stepping out of the lineup in favour of Pontus Holmberg, who slots in between Noah Gregor and Ryan Reaves, while David Kampf moves up into the 3C slot in between Max Domi and Calle Jarnkrok; the design being that the responsible two-way play of Kampf and Jarnkrok — as well as the shooting skill of Jarnkrok — can complement Domi’s shortfalls away from the puck while Domi provides the playmaking impetus to the line.

Minten stepping aside for Holmberg looks to be the beginning of the end of his stint in the NHL this season. As soon as the team went out on the road to play stronger opposition without control over the matchups, Minten’s minutes dropped below nine in Florida and now he appears to be sitting out tonight in Tampa.

Game Day Quotes

Jon Cooper on the Leafs vs. Lightning rivalry: 

Rivalries… Original Six teams have built-in rivalries for 100 years. But I do think there is a bit of a budding one with the two of us just because of the simple fact that when you play teams in the playoffs multiple years in a row, there is a little fire in both teams.

It was a long summer for us for sure, and a little bit shorter for them, but not by much. It is two teams that want to get back to where they were. With the teams in our division that are chasing us, all of a sudden, these games become more magnified.

Any time Toronto and Tampa get together, they’re fun games. It should be good.

Cooper on his memories of last year’s playoff exit at the hands of the Leafs:

There wasn’t a whole lot of great memories in it. The biggest disappointment was blowing the 4-1 lead. If you watch those first games out, it was a pretty darn even series. For us, at home, to do that… Good on Toronto for coming back the way that they did, but that was a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth, how that happened.

In the end, there were a lot of guys on our team that needed some rest. We didn’t want it to come that early for us, but it did happen. Hopefully, this year, we are a bit better for it in the sense that our legs last a bit longer.

Cooper on how his team is coping with the absence of Andrei Vasilevskiy: 

Vasilevskiy is irreplecable. He is one of a kind. It is going to have to be a bit of a collective effort here.

The goalies have done a fantastic job for us. As a whole, if I look at our team defense and take two periods away — the second period in Nashville and the second period in Detroit — I haven’t minded the way we have played without the puck. If we are giving our goalies a chance to stop pucks and limiting some of these chances — going from A chances to C chances — we will take it.

We are probably a bit snakebitten on the offensive side of things. Some odd goals have gone in against us that we don’t regularly see. As a whole, I like what this team has done. Goalies have given us a chance to win every night.

We are taking steps forward, but as I said, we are not replacing the Big Cat. We just have to keep plugging away the way that we are and hope we keep improving as a team so that when Vasilevskiy comes in, it is seamless and we take off from there.

Lightning forward Tanner Jeannot on the first meeting with the Leafs since Toronto eliminated Tampa last spring:

Going back to the playoffs last year, it was a spirited series. We felt that we played them hard. Coming in, you remember that feeling of getting knocked out early like that. A lot of guys remember that feeling and they’re going to be bringing a lot of passion to this game.

Sheldon Keefe on Pontus Holmberg entering the lineup after the call-up:

He is a good player and played a lot of good hockey for us last season… He has a good skill set. It seemed like he maybe hit a wall in the second half of [last] season. To me, it wasn’t the same player that we had earlier in the season. As the league gets harder and harder, most players are going to go through that. I think he did. He should be better for that experience.

Max Domi on the adjustment process of joining a new team:

I have been fortunate to play for some really good teams… Playing for a guy like Pete Deboer or Rod Brind’amour at the deadline, the common denominator was, “Hey, we are going to throw a lot of stuff at you early. Take the next 20 games to get ready to go. When the puck drops for Game 1, that is when we are going to need you to execute at a high level.”

I am not saying it is going to take 20 games, but that is kind of the mindset. It does take time. It is not one of those things where you snap your fingers and everything just clicks, especially when there are a lot of new faces.

We are doing a lot of good things. Focus on that stuff. Keep getting good reps in practice. Watch video. Enjoy your time together. That is what we are doing. It is a really tight-knit group and everyone is having fun. It is nice to hit a little adversity early in the year. It is a good time to do it and a good time to build some good chemistry.

Domi on whether he is putting a lot of pressure on himself to succeed in Toronto:

You always want to have success right away, right? That is the nature of human beings. No one wants to fall down a bunch of times. Without failure or screwups here or there, you are never going to have success. That is how you learn.

Part of growing up and being mature is handling that stuff in stride. It is an honour to wear this jersey and be on a team as good as this team. Just keep building, keep having fun, and it will come.

Domi on the potential of his line with David Kampf and Calle Jarnkrok:

A lot of speed. Davy is really good at both ends of the rink, and so is Jarny. Both of them can shoot and get to the cage. I just have to make some plays, hang onto the puck, and generate some more extended o-zone time. If the transition game is sound, we should be good.

Auston Matthews on the process of finding chemistry with Tyler Bertuzzi:

He was kind of battling something the last couple of days. It is never easy. He is a really good player. He is easy to play with. As time continues to go along and we get more repetitions together, we will have a better idea of where each other likes to be, and we’ll find the chemistry a little bit easier.

Matthews on Pontus Holmberg’s game:

He is sneaky skilled. He has such good touches with the puck. He has a really good brain on the ice. Any time he has been up with us, he has always been really solid at both ends of the ice.

He is a guy who can create offense in a number of different areas, whether it is off the rush or below the dots. He is a very skilled and talented player, and any time he has been up with us, he has put in some good work.

Head-to-Head Stats: Maple Leafs vs. Lightning (2022-23)

Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines

#59 Tyler Bertuzzi – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#23 Matthew Knies – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#11 Max Domi – #64 David Kampf – #19 Calle Jarnkrok
#18 Noah Gregor – #29 Pontus Holmberg – #75 Ryan Reaves

#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#22 Jake McCabe – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#55 Mark Giordano – #3 John Klingberg

Starter: #35 Ilya Samsonov
#60 Joseph Woll

Scratched: Fraser Minten
Injured: Conor Timmins

Tampa Bay Lightning Projected Lines

#12 Alex Barre-Boulet – #21 Brayden Point – #86 Nikita Kucherov
#91 Steven Stamkos  – #71 Anthony Cirelli – #38 Brandon Hagel
#84 Tanner Jeannot – #20 Nick Paul – #39 Waltteri Merela
#73 Conor Sheary – #11 Luke Glendening – #23 Michael Eyssimont

#77 Victor Hedman – #81 Erik Cernak
#98 Mikhail Sergachev – #43 Darren Raddysh
#44 Calvin de Haan – #48 Nicklaus Perbix

Starter: #31 Jonas Johansson
#90 Matt Tomkins

Injured: Andrei Vasilevskiy