The Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning rematch during the upcoming Stanley Cup Playoffs, which was confirmed over the weekend, brings intriguing storylines. Aside from lineup considerations for each team and determining the home-ice advantage, the remaining two weeks of the regular season bring few reasons to tune in.
Now that this Atlantic division clash has been set, let’s take an early look at some narratives.
Rematch Provides a Chance For Rivalry
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is adamant the current playoff format does not need to change. Despite a high-profile player like Sidney Crosby speaking out in favour of revising the format, Bettman likes the idea of division rivals facing each other in the playoffs. This series buttresses his thinking.
Observers of the NHL will be thrilled should this series once again go to a seventh game. It’s hard to imagine it not going at least six. Should the Leafs finally clear their first-round hurdle, each team will have won a playoff series against the other in back-to-back years, and the rivalry will be deepened. Nothing supports Bettman’s stance on the current format better than divisional teams facing each other year after year.
The Battle of the Stars
With apologies to the original television show of the 1970s, the Leafs-Lightning matchup provides a modern-day encounter that is more appealing to hockey fans. The Leafs continue to run it back with their core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, and Morgan Rielly. The Lightning counter with marquee names like Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, and Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Nylander has had a career year. Tavares has continued his consistent, steady play. Marner looks likely to crack the century mark in points for the first time. Rielly has underperformed, while Matthews has fallen off his sixty-goal pace from last season. Kucherov has quietly already hit 100 points and Point will soon reach the fifty-goal mark. Stamkos, like Tavares, has maintained his usual production. Hedman has had a down year, by his normal standards. Vasilevskiy remains the envy of his goaltending peers.
The steady regular season play from most of each team’s key players will not matter once April 17th arrives. Then, the head-to-head battle of the stars will determine who moves on to the second round.
The Showdown of GTA Products
Stamkos threw a dagger into the hearts of Leafs’ fans during the summer of 2016 when he decided to re-up with the Lightning. The dream of the hometown boy returning to help the Leafs in their quest to bring home a championship was not to be.
It was not long until the dream of the prodigal son returning was revitalized. During the summer of 2018, Tavares endeared himself to Leafs Nation with his pajama tweet announcing his decision to join the team. He almost single-handedly finished off the Lightning in Game 6 last year. It’s hard to dislike Stamkos or envision him as a villain, but fans of the Leafs will be cheering extra hard for Tavares to finish the job this year.
The Head Coaching Chess Match
Sheldon Keefe’s points percentage as head coach of the Leafs compares favourably to most. His record takes a hit when you look at the team’s playoff failures. His counterpart, John Cooper, has had regular-season success and two recent championships.
You can bet that leading up to the start of the series, both coaches will unleash pleasantries about their respective opponents. They will tread carefully to avoid giving “bulletin board” material to the other. Cooper has never been shy to wax poetic about the abundance of the skill that the Leafs possess. This will not be Pat Burns versus Barry Melrose circa 1993.
The final two weeks for both of these teams will be about rest, avoiding injuries, and scouting their opponent. Come April 17th, the Leafs-Lightning rematch and the intriguing storylines it brings will start. Let the rivalry continue.
Main Photo: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports