For the second straight season, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning meet in the first round. Tampa clearly won the duel last year, en route to a third straight Stanley Cup Finals appearance.
This time, Toronto is bringing in reinforcements. They were aggressive at the trade deadline, picking up Ryan O’Reilly, Sam Lafferty, Jake McCabe, and Luke Shinn. A lot of experience and toughness were added to an already dangerous formation. Most importantly, in O’Reilly and Schenn, they’ve gained players who know what it takes to win a cup, something the Toronto team has been lacking over the past few years.
But is it enough to win the first playoff round since 2004? Although Tampa has shown signs of weakness this season, its core that has led them to three straight Finals remains as strong and dangerous as ever.
There are many questions on both sides. Here are three answers that could rock the chain.
Can Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner perform abroad?
For the second straight season, Toronto has home ice advantage against the Lightning in the first round. That comes with the advantage of the latter changing in four of seven games, meaning Sheldon How can he avoid sending Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner against Anthony Cirelli or Brayden Point, John Cooper’s defensive strikes. In the four home games where Toronto had the advantage of the last change, Matthews and Marner each had seven points, with a difference of +4 and +6 respectively. They also saw their playing time split evenly among the four Tampa centers.
On the road, John Cooper has fielded Anthony Cirelli and Brayden Point in the vast majority of Leafs’ debuts and the results are pretty amazing. In all three road games, the star position for the Maple Leafs has been limited to one goal and one assist in three games with a -3 record. Mitch Marner was less efficient, earning only 1 point and also posting a -3 differential.
If the Leafs decide to play Ryan O’Reilly and John Tavares together on the second line, there is a significant drop in rating between the top 6 players and the rest. So John Cooper could still deploy Cirelli and Point against Toronto’s best units without too much risk. If the Leafs’ two big guns can find success in Florida (on ice, not on a golf course), the Leafs’ chances will help greatly.
Does the light blue line measure?
Although Lightning is still piloted on the blue line by Victor Hedman, Colossus is far from being surrounded as it once was. Mikhail Sergachev has had a blast offensively with 64 points this season, which somewhat mitigate the losses, but there is no doubt that the Lightning defense is at its weakest in the past four years.
Ryan McDonagh was a victim of the salary cap over the summer when he was traded to the Nashville Predators. He’s no longer young at 33 years old, but he’s still an effective defender who’s played over 21 minutes per game for Nashville this season. Tampa has also lost the services of veterans like Zach Bogosian, Braydon Coburn, and Jan Rota in recent seasons, as well as youngster Cal Vaught, who is also now in Nashville after being included in the trade that brought Tanner Ginott to Florida.
In response, Lightning has been mostly upgraded from within, replacing players who have left. Nick Perbix, a 2017 sixth-round pick, plays a major role in the top four as a junior, while Darren Radish has 21 NHL games at age 27 and is currently listed as Mikhail Sergachev’s second pair partner. Although the Lightning are used to developing their players well, we are far from a talent like McDonagh or a reliable veteran. Tampa also elected not to acquire a defenseman by the trade deadline.
As a result, Tampa allowed 3.07 goals per game this season, their worst average since 2011-12. Will the manpower at John Cooper’s disposal be enough to slow Matthews, Marner, and company?
Which guard will have the upper hand?
Andrei Vasilevskiy posted his worst save percentage (0.915) and goals against average (2.65) since 2015-16 this season, but a poor season by his standards is still a very solid performance for the league. He’s still eighth in goals made with 8.33 and, historically, has stepped up his form in the series. He had a better save average in the playoffs than in the regular season in each of the past three seasons.
On the other hand, it looks like Ilya Samsonov will be in goal for the Leafs while Matt Murray, the most experienced goalkeeper in the playoffs, is still injured. Samsonov himself finished the season with an injury, but had a great season in his freshman year in Toronto. He finished just behind Vasilevsky in goalscoring, despite playing 20 fewer games. He also led the entire NHL in save percentage against shots from down the hole.
On the other hand, what is undoubtedly in favor of Lightning is experience. The series opener would be Vasilevsky’s 100th start, while Samsonov would make his eighth start in the spring tournament. A Leafs player is 1-6-0 in the playoffs and has a 2.98 goals against average. We are far from 0.923 and 2.30 for the Lightning goalkeeper. Vasilevskiy proved he could steal matches on his own. Can he do it again this year? Or will Samsonov be able to continue his usual momentum this season?
Prediction: Tampa Bay at 7
Even though Toronto is looking better than ever and the Lightning are finally showing signs of slowing down, I cannot in good conscience pick Toronto in this duel. Over the past few years they have shown us time and time again that they will find a way to lose a series that they must win. They lost the benefit of the doubt on my part a long time ago which is why my predictions lean towards Tampa Bay.
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