We’ve made it! The first 82-game season since the 2018-19 season has officially wrapped, leaving us with some exciting first-round playoff matchups. Possibly the most intriguing and exciting of the eight matchups kicks off on Monday with the Toronto Maple Leafs vs the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Leafs hold the home-ice advantage after finishing second in the Atlantic division with 115 points, meaning games one and two will occur in Toronto at Scotiabank Arena (along with games five and seven if necessary). Tampa finished third in the Atlantic with 110 points, which means games three and four will be played at Amalie Arena (as well as game six, if necessary).
This series is a dream matchup for hockey fans—two exciting teams with skill to spare. Superstars are aplenty. The fact that these two teams are meeting in the first round should make for skilled hockey played at the highest level without the fatigue of battling through previous playoff series. That fatigue factor makes for slower, sloppy, less skilled hockey. These two teams will be meeting each other fresh (or as fresh as two teams can be, having just played an 82-game season). The Leafs and Lightning met four times in the regular season, splitting the season series at two wins apiece (though Tampa outscored Toronto 16-12 in those four games).
With so many potential storylines surrounding this series, let’s focus on the three most important/intriguing.
Toronto Maple Leafs vs Tampa Bay Lightning Preview
Toronto’s Playoff Demons
Everyone knows the quote by now.
In the Amazon Prime documentary All or Nothing, Toronto assistant coach Paul MacLean says of the Leafs before their fateful game seven loss to Montreal, “They’ve got demons in their heads. They’ve got them in their car. They’ve got them under their f—ing beds. Everywhere they turn, there’s a f—ing demon. The biggest obstacle this team has is themselves.”
A bit dramatic but accurate.
It’s no secret who needs to win this series more. The Maple Leafs have not made it out of the first round in 18 years. They have also lost five consecutive first-round playoff matchups (though in the 2020 playoff bubble, they lost to Columbus in the qualifying round and didn’t technically make the playoffs). The Leafs had a legendary meltdown in the first round of last year’s playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens.
If anyone has forgotten what happened last year, here’s a quick recap: The Leafs tore through the all-Canadian North Division in 2021 and drew a matchup against the lowly Canadiens in Round One of the playoffs. Toronto grabbed a three-to-one series lead but failed to close it out, losing three consecutive games and another first-round exit.
This year, the pressure to win a round is higher than ever. Failure to do so will likely result in significant changes in the Maple Leafs’ organization. General manager Kyle Dubas even admitted this before the season. That may mean Dubas himself is relieved of his duties. That may also mean that one or more of the “Core Four” is moved (the Core Four being Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander). These playoffs will be the fourth time this core competes together as constructed. There will not be a fifth.
Tampa’s Quest For A Three-Peat
The Tampa Bay Lightning are just the fourth repeat Stanley Cup champions in the last 31 years. The Pittsburgh Penguins did it in 2016 and 2017, and in 1991 and 1992. The Detroit Red Wings did it in 1997 and 1998. If the Tampa Bay Lightning win their third Stanley Cup this year, they will accomplish something that hasn’t been done since the New York Islanders dynasty of the early 80s (the Islanders won four in a row from 1980 to 1983). It will also put them in the conversation for the best dynasty of the cap era if they aren’t there already.
The team is peaking at the right time. Entering the playoffs, the Lightning have won seven of their last ten games. They have defeated the Maple Leafs by a score of eight to one on April 21st. Also, they outscored their opponents 48 to 29.
Drawing the Leafs in the first round is not ideal. Despite their past playoff woes, the Leafs are a strong team with prolific scorers and an improved defensive corps. Toronto has also been building towards this round for the past year and will not be an easy out. But this shouldn’t be too daunting of a task for the Lightning. Tampa has won their two Cups under extraordinary circumstances (pandemic, the playoff bubble, scrambled divisions). They’ve had to beat some strong teams along the way. Winning a tough series is nothing new.
The star power on both rosters is undeniable. But In the playoffs, top-line players are often negated by heavy checking and different officiating standards. That’s why it’s vital to have players on the third and fourth lines who can play a heavy game and chip in offensively with goals at crucial moments.
Tampa Bay’s Depth
Ask anyone what the key to Tampa’s two Cup wins was, and they’ll tell you depth. Tampa won by having one of the best third lines in hockey with the trio of Yanni Gourde, Barclay Goodrow, and Blake Coleman. Due to salary cap constraints, all three left in the offseason. The Bolts tried all season to fill the void those three players left with varying degrees of success. General manager Julien BriseBois added Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel to the mix at the trade deadline. It remains to be seen how they perform in the playoffs. But both wingers play the skilled physical game needed. Add that to the fourth line of Pat Maroon, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and Corey Perry, and the Lightning once again have a formidable bottom-six.
The Leafs boast an equally impressive forward depth.
Offseason addition David Kampf has had the third line center spot locked down all season. He has taken key defensive faceoffs and provided energetic forechecking. Head coach Sheldon Keefe has also taken to playing William Nylander on the third line, creating matchup headaches for opposing teams. Their most common linemate is the speedy Pierre Engvall, who blends skill with a physical element. If Keefe decides that he wants Nylander to play on the second line with John Tavares, he can fill the wing position with the speed and skill of either Ilya Mikheyev or Alex Kerfoot. Mikheyev has been an offensive revelation this year, notching 20 goals for the first time in his career. Kerfoot is an excellent two-way player and can play anywhere in the lineup.
The Leafs also have options on the fourth line, with Kyle Clifford, Wayne Simmonds, or Colin Blackwell able to play the wing. Veteran Jason Spezza centers the fourth line and provides a calming presence.
It is so difficult to pick a winner here.
Toronto needs this win badly. And everyone should fully expect them to play like it. Sheldon Keefe has preached scoring playoff-style goals all season, and that’s what the Leafs have done. Their stars are still their stars, but they are willing to go to those dirty areas to score. Last season, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner were virtual no-shows against Montreal. The Leafs relied so heavily on those two for offence. Once Matthews and Marner went cold, the depth couldn’t fill the void. Fans should not expect a repeat this year. Though Toronto will be without breakout rookie Michael Bunting to start, Sheldon Keefe expects him to return later in the series.
Ondrej Kase is a game-time decision for Game 1, per Sheldon Keefe. Michael Bunting is “doubtful” but Keefe adds that the #leafs will have him back in the lineup during Round 1.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) May 1, 2022
On the back end, the matchup is just as equal as the one up front. Toronto’s additions of Mark Giordano and Ilya Lyubushkin have been prolific. Giordano has played his regular high-level two-way game while Lyubushkin has provided the snarl on defence the Maple Leafs have missed. Tampa boasts the great Victor Hedman, of course. Hedman is an imposing presence on the blueline. He suppresses opponents’ top players while also jump-starting the offence. Ryan McDonagh is another all-world defender. Mikhail Sergachev can play in most teams’ top four but plays on the third pair.
Goaltending will decide this series. The Lightning arguably have the best goaltender in the world in Andrei Vasilevskiy. Vasilevskiy also has a history of elevating his game in the playoffs, playing his best when the stakes are high. Toronto will be going with Jack Campbell. Though Campbell’s play was otherworldly early in the season, he cooled off to the point where it was concerning. Though his play has bounced back some, looking more like early-season Jack Campbell, he has also dealt with injuries. Not good news for Leafs Nation. Add that to the fact that Campbell has yet to see any postseason success. The clear edge goes to Vasilevskiy and the Lightning.
No matter who emerges victorious, the real winners are us, the fans. This series of the Toronto Maple Leafs vs Tampa Bay Lightning will be a showcase of everything that makes hockey beautiful. It’s a shame that one of these teams won’t make it past the first round.
That being said, we’re here to pick a winner.
Lightning in seven.