2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 1 Previews: Maple Leafs vs. Lightning
Each of the last five seasons in Toronto have felt like they’ve ended as a league-wide referendum on how the Maple Leafs are built. The formula has been the same each time. The high-flying, offense first Maple Leafs give a physical, veteran team all they can handle in the first round. But just when it seems like they’re about to break through, the bottom drops out. The scoring goes could. The goaltenders turn into pumpkins. And that’s how you get a 17-year playoff series win drought, the second longest active streak in the NHL. Well, that and making the playoffs just once in the first 12 years of said drought.
The good news for Toronto is that they’re arguably not getting a team quite built like that this year. Instead, they’ll face another highly-skilled team known for their offensive prowess and having the best forwards in the game. The identity of that team is far more daunting, however: the defending-defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Not only are the Bolts incredibly skilled, but they’re very stout defensively and have arguably the best goalie in the game to boot. While the Maple Leafs have made strides to sure up the players surrounding their ride-or-die top four forwards, they aren’t as complete as the Lightning. That doesn’t mean they can’t overcome their playoff demons against a team that knows their struggle (even if they didn’t usually plateau until later in the playoffs). It just won’t be easy, which feels fitting no matter how the series plays out.
Toronto Maple Leafs (54-21-7, No. 2 Atlantic) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (51-23-8, No. 3 Atlantic)
Recent History: The closest thing the Maple Leafs and Lightning have to a playoff history is Toronto edging out the Lightning for the final playoff spot in 2017. It’s one of just two seasons (2019 being the other) the Lightning haven’t at least reached the Eastern Conference Final since 2015. But no, these teams have never played each other in a playoff series.
Season Series: Two high scoring wins for Tampa Bay, including an 8-1 rhomping of Toronto in their final regular season meeting less than two weeks ago. The Maple Leafs have also won twice, including a Matthews hat-trick in Tampa Bay earlier in April and an overtime win at home in November.
The Last Time Here: Last year’s first round series was Toronto’s to lose, as they faced off against a Canadiens team on pace for about 26 fewer points than them over an 82-game schedule. Whether you’re a Leafs fan or not, you know the drill. Toronto vaulted out to an early 3-1 series lead. They were seemingly in firm control the way they hadn’t been in any of their prior frustrating first round exits. But late comebacks in Games 5 and 6 were thwarted by egregious mistakes in overtime. And Toronto completely laid an egg at home in Game 7, a dud arguably greater than all of their previous playoff shortcomings in recent memory combined.
The Lightning also jumped out to a 3-1 series lead in their first round matchup against the only NHL team with a longer series win drought: Florida. Like Toronto, the Lightning couldn’t finish the job in Game 5. But there was little doubt the defending Cup champions would finish the job. Which they did in convincing fashion in Game 6. Fun fact: Tampa Bay has clinched just one playoff series on the road (Round 2 last year at Carolina). That’s excluding the 2020 bubble, by the way.
Why Toronto Wins: Not just because they’re due, but because they’ve got the star-talent to push them over the top. While injuries wreak havoc on every team’s playoff runs (which the Lightning learned better than anyone in 2020), it’s hard to have a worse timed and more significant injury than the very scary one John Tavares suffered in the first twenty minutes of last year’s playoffs. It stunned Toronto in a Game 1 loss and hurt their ability to push over the hump. Yes, they still should have beaten Montréal, even without Tavares (and Jake Muzzin, who was injured later in the series). And there’s no guarantee significant injuries don’t strike them down again.
But when healthy, and even when not, Toronto has enough firepower to make even a tremendous team like Tampa quiver. That’s because Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner reached even higher heights than before this season. The former pulled off the first 50 goals in 50 games run in 26 years; the latter discovered a new-found scoring ability that, combined with his stellar playmaking skills, makes him a nightmare to defend. Marner is 9th in the NHL in shot assists per 60 minutes; Matthews is second in the NHL in shots per 60. Bottom line: they’re an elite offensive duo, seemingly always in sync.
Add in the agitating but also dangerous Michael Bunting, and you have one of the league’s best first lines. And at a combined cap hit of about $23.5 million (or an average of $7.8 million per player). Bunting’s bargain bin deal ($950K this year and next) helps cushion Tavares’ slight decline over the last couple seasons. He’s probably never going to score 47 goals like he did in his first year in Toronto. But he’s still a tremendous talent.
William Nylander rounds out Toronto’s core four up front, and while he’s enjoying the best offensive season of his career, he needs to make sure he’s paying attention to the little details as well. The most underrated part of Toronto’s stars, especially Matthews and Marner, is their defensive play. Matthews could legitimately win a Selke one day. No Leaf is on the ice for fewer expected goals against per 60 than their 60-goal scorer. And Marner is one of the team’s top penalty killers, both defensively and as a short-handed threat.
With the talent of those players and the speed of Marner and other players like Ilya Mikheyev, you would expect Toronto to primarily be a team that attacks off the rush. Toronto can certainly do that, but their bread and butter is the forecheck. That isn’t to say the Leafs can’t do that well; all of the five players mentioned above (except Mikheyev), Alex Kerfoot and another player I’ll highlight later are above average at entering the o-zone with control. But while Toronto does generate more controlled entries per 60 than league average, controlled entries make up just 48.8% of Toronto’s total entries, which is the 6th lowest clip in the league. It’s obviously worked for them, though; Toronto’s produced a 35% dump-in recovery (5th best), 34.7 shots per game (6th), and 3.80 goals per game (2nd). Decent.
Toronto’s defense will obviously have a hard time against their potent opposition, as every team does. While Toronto’s blue-line is better than its reputation or skill level of years past, it’s still not the team’s strength. Although it is worth remembering it’s been offense that’s betrayed the team in their last two playoff disappointments. Still, to win this series, the Maple Leafs will have to play to their strengths. And that’s true on offense and defense.
Toronto excels at breaking the puck out of their zone, ranking second in Exit with Possession% and near the top in Successful Zone Exit%. It’s what makes their No. 1 Morgan Rielly such a great player, and the rest of the back-end follows his lead. Just about all of their defensemen can do it, too. Toronto is almost much better prepared for injuries, too; two of Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren, Justin Holl, and Ilya Lyubushkin aren’t going to be in the lineup when everyone’s healthy. That’s legit some of the best blue-line depth in the league.
The Maple Leafs also have depth at the goaltending position. But things at the top are much shakier than up front or on the blue-line. Jack Campbell looked like a Vezina candidate early on after a strong 2020-21 campaign. But he went through a rough midseason patch, recording a .887 save percentage through the first two months and two days of 2022. Then he missed nearly a month with a rib injury. He’s been better since coming back (.908 SV%), but not where he was to start the season. Campbell’s greenness as a starter is why they signed Petr Mrázek in the offseason. But he’s been so bad he was actually put on waivers earlier in the year and hasn’t played at all in April. Youngsters Joseph Woll and Erik Källgren have had their moments in limited minutes. But it feels like it’s Campbell or bust for Toronto’s chances to advance.
Tampa Bay Wins Because: They’ve got everything Toronto’s going for them too, and more. Tampa Bay has to be feeling good about a matchup against the Maple Leafs, a team whose defense struggles to hold the blue-line. First, the Lightning stronger in that regard. But more importantly, they have a highly skilled team that can take advantage of Toronto’s passiveness at their own blue-line.
Obviously leading the way are Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov, two of the league’s most dynamic players. The former is one of the league’s most dangerous players in transition, finishing 10th in entries leading to scoring chances per 60 and 12th in controlled entries per 60. Shutting him down will be Toronto’s biggest and most difficult task. Against a similarly constructed 2020-21 Panthers team, Point finished tied with Alex Killorn (a very underrated player) with four goals.
Tampa Bay can certainly play a heavy game too if Toronto forces them into that; every single Lightning forward except Anthony Cirelli finished above league average in forecheck/cycle offense per 60 (although Cirelli is near the top of the league in forecheck pressures per 60). That’s probably not Tampa Bay’s best way of winning this series. But as a team they rank strong in controlled entries per 60, about 0.2 ahead of Toronto. It’s a big task for the Maple Leafs to contain Point and Kucherov themselves. But the support they have from the rest of Tampa Bay’s forward group is what makes the Lightning so special. Not only do the Lightning have some pretty great parts, they’re also more than just the sum of them, too.
Tampa Bay’s biggest edge over Toronto on paper is clearly in net. Even if Jack Campbell bounces back to 2021 form, it’s a tall order for him to outduel Andrei Vasilevskiy. Toronto can still win even if that’s not the case, but Vasilevskiy is obviously capable of taking over a series. Each of Tampa Bay’s last five series wins have ended with a shutout, dating back to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final. Vasilevskiy largely won the Conn Smythe last year based on that stat. And while it’s more than just Vasilevskiy, a goaltender with 28.4 goals saved above expected is obviously stellar. Vasilevskiy vs. Matthews and Co. is as close as you can get to “the unstoppable force meets the immovable object” hypothetical.
It obviously helps that Tampa Bay has a tremendous defense in front of him. One low-key advantage for the Lightning is that Toronto is fairly weak at left wing, especially if Bunting misses time after being injured near the end of the season. The Lightning’s defense is notorious for being incredibly stacked on the left and just fine on the right. Left defensemen are matched against right wingers on the rush, meaning Tampa Bay will naturally have Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and Mikhail Sergachev staring down Marner and Nylander.
Hedman leads all Lightning defenders in expected goals percentage. While noted not usual suspects Jan Rutta and Erik Cernak aren’t far behind, they aren’t nearly as strong overall as Hedman. McDonagh and Sergachev are actually Tampa Bay’s best puck-movers, so it will be interesting to see how Jon Cooper deploys his pairs. I’d expect Hedman-Cernak to draw Toronto’s top-line, but Cooper should be able to rotate all three pairings fairly smoothly. Toronto can do the same, which is something the Maple Leafs haven’t been able to say in years past. But that doesn’t take away from Tampa Bay’s strong back-end. Looking for Tampa Bay to try and kill plays as early as possible and do whatever it takes to make someone other than Matthews and Marner beat them. Easier said than done, of course, but the Lightning are capable of it.
Players to Watch:
TOR: It’s been a while since the Maple Leafs have had a true shutdown center. It’s something that’s stands out in stark contrast to defensively sound teams like Columbus or players like Patrice Bergeron or Danault. David Kämpf is nowhere near as good as Patrice Bergeron or Danault. I’m going to say the word nowhere again just so you can’t say you missed. What he is, however, is an excellent shutdown depth center. Kämpf was all but unheard of when Toronto signed him to $1.5 million per year for two years in the summer, scoring just one goal in 56 games last year.
He’s up to 11 this season, but that’s not his job. Defense is, and he does it very well. The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn’s model rates Kämpf as an elite defensive player, as he carves out what could be a very critical niché in this series (and perhaps beyond it). Holding Tampa Bay’s outstanding forwards at bay as much as possible is obviously vital. While Toronto has defensively sound stars, I’d expect Sheldon Keefe to try and put them in a scoring role and trust Kämpf’s line in a tradition shutdown role. If he can do that, at least to a pretty high extent, it would be absolutely massive. A lot of criticism towards Toronto has been aimed at their defense. Kämpf could provide the help Toronto’s blue-line needs to hold the fort.
TB: Breaking through Toronto’s rock solid PK (4th fewest expected goals against per 60 minutes) will be key for the Lightning. Who better to do that than Tampa’s second leading PP goal scorer from last year’s playoffs (trailing only Brayden Point) and Toronto native Steven Stamkos? Stamkos was fairly heavily rumored to be heading to Toronto when he was about to hit free agency in 2016. Instead, he stayed with the Lightning, and after a few tough playoff performances, things have obviously worked out.
Stamkos erased any doubt surrounding his impact after missing all but three minutes of their 2020 Cup run. However, there were some wondering if that impact was starting to dwindle as Stamkos aged into his early 30s. He responded with a solid play-driving year, finishing slightly positive relative to his teammates by Corsi (+0.22%) and Expected Goals (+0.23%), plus 106 (!) points to boot. In other words, the Lightning took more shots and created more chances when Stamkos was on the ice than not. In other other words, the Lightning captain isn’t just an empty-calorie goal-scorer or a power-play specialist. And after years of wearing the brunt of Tampa Bay’s playoff shortcomings, I highly doubt going back-to-back has completely quenched his thirst for success. If the Lightning extent Toronto’s drought, he’ll likely be a big reason why.
The Pick: While it isn’t completely accurate to just call the Lightning a better version of the Maple Leafs, it’s easy to see the argument. Point and Kucherov are a similar duo to Matthews and Marner. Stamkos had a more productive season than Tavares this year. While you could argue whether the rest of the forward cores lean towards Toronto, Tampa Bay, or are a push, the Lightning unequivocally have the better defense, even with the Maple Leafs adding Mark Giordano at the deadline. And even peak Jack Campbell is a step behind Andrei Vasilevskiy, who’s been one of the league’s best netminders for a half decade. Sheldon Keefe is a very good coach, but there might not be a better one than Jon Cooper. It just wouldn’t make sense for this to be the year Toronto ends its 18-year series win drought.
Which is exactly why it makes perfect sense. The Maple Leafs have defied every piece of conventional wisdom over the last decade. Heinous collapses to miss the playoffs in 2011, 2012, and 2014. A heinous collapse in Game 7 they had no business being in to begin with in 2013. Making the playoffs in 2017 with an approximate average age of 16 and pushing the President’s Trophy winners to overtime in five of the six games. A near perfect repeat of their 2013 disappointment five years later. Finally having chances to advance in the playoffs at Scotiabank Arena — four of them in the last three years. Stars going invisible when needed most. Otherwise rock solid goaltenders unable to hold the fort in the big moments. The playoff heroics of players like James Reimer (2013), Patrick Marleau (2018), and Nylander (2021) being forgotten because the team couldn’t finish the job.
None of it makes any sense. Neither does this. Toronto in 7.
Oddly Specific Prediction: This is an idea I always borrow from one of the best hockey writers, The Athletic’s Sean McIndoe (aka Down Goes Brown). The idea is very self-explanatory: make a very specific and semi-random prediction for each series. The idea is “stolen”; the predictions themselves are not. There hasn’t been enough focus on Toronto’s power-kill (not a typo) in my opinion. A big Alex Kerfoot short-handed goal in this series should change that.
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