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Tampa Bay Lightning vs Toronto Maple Leafs First-Round Series Preview

Tampa Bay Lightning vs Toronto Maple Leafs sees a puck near the net

The playoffs are finally here and with it comes the most exciting time of any sporting event. The first round of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs are unlike any other. With four games on each night, there is no stoppage regarding the action! Today, we will take a look at the Tampa Bay Lightning vs Toronto Maple Leafs. They start their rematch series from last year’s first round on Tuesday. What can we expect from either team? Let’s dive into some storylines that will shape this series now.

Tampa Bay Lighting vs Toronto Maple Leafs First-Round Preview

Maple Leafs Centre Usage

The biggest question and possible X-Factor compared to last year may be how the Toronto Maple Leafs use their centres to try and exploit an advantage when it comes to their depth. As highlighted by Jeremy Franks, the Leafs have added plenty of talent this season to bolster their roster. However, none may be as important as Ryan O’Reilly in what he can bring to this team. With the addition of O’Reilly, the Leafs now have the ability to go with Auston Matthews, John Tavares, and O’Reilly down the middle. That is a trio almost no one in the league can compare to.

O’Reilly should bring some playoff experience with the Conn Smythe he won back in 2019, and he can be used as a shutdown centre to try and neutralize the ever-dangerous Brayden Point line. If this is the case, than Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner will be freed up to play a little more loose. However, the biggest winners will be Tavares and William Nylander, who would very likely be getting to play against Tampa’s 3rd line of Brandon Hagel, Nick Paul, and Ross Colton. That is a matchup the Leafs should feel good about seeing their players exploit.

The other option would be to move Tavares to the wing and stack the top six by playing O’Reilly up on line two. This may be used when on the road to overwhelm Tampa and have them make a decision. Regardless, the addition of O’Reilly gives Toronto some interesting options to explore.

Goaltending Matchup

The biggest area in a Tampa Bay Lightning vs Toronto Maple Leafs matchup that Tampa will always feel comfortable in, regardless of opponent, is the goaltending position. Andrei Vasilevskiy almost always steps his game up come playoff time, even if it is for part of a series. Last year, he actually looked rather pedestrian vs Toronto to start. And then in Games 6 and 7 absolutely stole the show, giving the Maple Leafs fits. Trying to solve him again will likely be the hardest part of this series for Toronto.

On the other side of things, we will get to see how Ilya Samsonov does under the pressure of a playoff series. He had an amazing year this season, but there always seemed to be questions about would Matt Murray and his playoff experience steal the net? Well, that question was answered when Murray once again got hurt. It looks like he may be ready at some point, but this is Samsonov’s net for now.

Toronto isn’t expecting Samsonov to outduel Vasilevskiy. However, if they can get good goaltending that should be enough. What Samsonov has provided all year has been excellent, but seeing if he can repeat that now will be very interesting.

Tampa Bay Lightning vs Toronto Maple Leafs Defence

Another X-Factor for Tampa in this series has to be Victor Hedman. Hedman wasn’t bad this season, but he sure wasn’t the Norris-level defenceman we have come to know him to be over the past few seasons. Finishing near the bottom in both CorsiFor Percentage and ExpectedGoals Percentage for Tampa’s blueline, Hedman will need to rebound into the monster we know him to be.

The salary cap has eaten away at the depth of this Bolts team over the years. Ryan McDonagh was one of the major pieces of that this past off-season. Ian Cole has been a pleasant surprise to fit with Mikhail Sergachev, and Erik Cernak is solid too. But Hedman is the straw that stirs the drink. He will need to play 25+ a night at his normal dominating pace.

For Toronto, seeing how they use their defence will be interesting. Morgan Rielly, T.J. Brodie, Jake McCabe, and Mark Giordano are locks. However, how will Sheldon Keefe use them and Justin Holl, Timothy Liljegren, Luke Schenn and possibly even Erik Gustafsson? The Leafs have plenty of depth, but can only use six or seven players per game.

Will Knies Play?

The last thing to keep an eye on will be, does Matthew Knies dresses for Toronto and can he be a difference-maker. There is a hole open for the second-line left-wing spot beside Tavares and Nylander. However, that is a tall task for a player just out of College. Still, Knies has a bigger frame that can be effective when forechecking to make a play for the Leafs.

Toronto’s issue at times in the past has been depth scoring when their big names take on all the pressure. If Knies can be a solid player it just bumps everyone down a peg. Suddenly Alexander Kerfoot is on your fourth line, not second. And say what you want about him but Kerfoot would be one of the better fourth-liners in the league.

It will ultimately be up to Toronto’s big players. However, if Knies can be an helpful asset that may go a long way in this series.

Series Prediction

On paper, this series should favour Toronto. However, paper also ignores the histories of these two teams. It seems fair to assume that after three straight trips to the Stanley Cup Finals, Tampa may not have been treating the regular season with as much effort. There is no doubt the Tampa Bay Lightning vs Toronto Maple Leafs series will be close.

However, Toronto’s depth at forward and defence will give them the needed edge here. The Leafs will win this one in 6. Avoiding the dreaded Game 7 curse.

Main Photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports


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