2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 1 Preview: Maple Leafs vs. Lightning
Rematches happen in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, just like in any other sport. But rarely has so little changed from the prior time the two same teams met, especially with just one year in between. The Tampa Bay Lightning are still the Tampa Bay Lightning. They have won the Eastern Conference three years running and also brought home a pair of Stanley Cups in that span. The Toronto Maple Leafs are still the Toronto Maple Leafs. They are talented, full of stars and deeper than past versions of the team. They have also still not won a playoff series since 2004.
When these teams clashed a year ago, it produced a memorable, seven-game series full of close games and electrifying moments. It also ended like each of Toronto’s past four Round 1 series — a heartbreaking defeat in Game 7, this one by both one goal and on home ice. It was supposed to be a series where the Maple Leafs either took a step forward or couldn’t get the job done once again. Somehow, it was both.
Toronto entered the 2021-22 season assumed by many to clean house if they didn’t end what is now the NHL’s longest active gap between series wins. Even the Maple Leafs’ biggest detractors couldn’t help but be impressed on the whole with their performance against the Lightning a year ago, even if they came up short. So, the Maple Leafs kept their GM Kyle Dubas. And their head coach Sheldon Keefe. And their core-four up-front of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares.
But each year that passes could be the last one before the team feels that something has to give for them to finally break through. Every playoff failure brings those stars closer and closer to unrestricted free agency. Matthews and Nylander will both reach it after next season. Marner and Tavares get there the year after. In short: time is running out.
That’s not to say there isn’t urgency on the other side, however. Two of Tampa Bay’s key pieces, Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, are in their early 30s. Big extensions kick in next year for Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Černák. The Lightning have traded each of their next three first-round picks and each of their next seconds. Their time is now, and even though the Lightning likely won’t go away anytime soon, it won’t last forever. Toronto is hoping theirs is finally here. Only one can have their way in this familiar yet incredibly intriguing first-round matchup.
Toronto Maple Leafs (50-21-11, No. 2 Atlantic) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (46-30-6, No. 3 Atlantic)
In case you skipped the intro, these two teams met for the first time in the playoffs last season. It was an epic seven-game series, with the teams splitting the first two games and the final three being decided by just one goal. After a heroic comeback to win Game 5, Toronto was less than half a period away from realizing their dream of finally returning to the second round when the Lightning tied Game 6, won it in overtime, then edged the Leafs out in a hard-fought Game 7 in Toronto.
The Last Time Here
If you don’t know this by this point, I really don’t know what to tell you.
Why Toronto Wins
Because at some point, they have to. Right? Heck, the Lightning proved just that in 2020. There doesn’t even need to be an explanation, really. One day you wake up, and you’re one of the biggest chokers in the league. The next day, you’ve overcome all of your doubters. Sometimes it really is that simple.
Beating the Lightning, of course, is anything but. If the Leafs didn’t know that before last year, they certainly do now. Toronto did slightly outplay Tampa Bay at 5-on-5 last year (50.51% expected goals, 52% actual goals). But Tampa Bay beat the Leafs where you’d expect them to (in net) and where you might not (special teams). It was enough to squeak past the Maple Leafs last year, but only barely.
Though Ilya Samsonov may not have a much better reputation than last year’s starter Jack Campbell, Toronto should feel more comfortable with him between the pipes. Last year, Campbell stopped -2.3 goals above expected during the regular season, 39th in the NHL (min. 15 games played). In the playoffs, he was just as ordinary, allowing -1.1 goals above expected, 15th out of 20 goalies (min. 3 games played). Samsonov, on the other hand, is 10th in the league with 18 goals saved above expected. Yes, Andrei Vasilevskiy is one of the goalies ahead of him. But this year the gap is 10.1 goals above expected, as opposed to 30.7 in 2021-22. And Samsonov actually has a slight edge in goals saved above expected per 60 minutes as well.
Samsonov won’t be asked to carry the Leafs on his own, of course. Toronto held the Lightning to fewer than three goals three times in last year’s series. And the defensive concerns that plagued the team during the early years of the Matthews era are largely gone. The Maple Leafs ranked 10th at 5-on-5 and third on the penalty kill in expected goals against per 60. Meanwhile, the Lightning are 15th and 21st in those departments, respectively.
Per The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn, three Toronto defenders rank in the 85th percentile or better at defensive play-driving. That trio doesn’t even include the two solid “shutdown” blue-liners Toronto recently acquired in Jake McCabe and Luke Schenn. Or the potentially lockdown bottom-six center shutdown duo of David Kämpf and 2018-19 Selke winner Ryan O’Reilly. If the Leafs move O’Reilly into the top six, then Noel Acciari is still a strong defender as well. You want a team built for the playoffs? This sure looks like one.
Of course, toughness isn’t the only thing a team needs to go far. It may seem like burying the lede, but there’s a reason it’s taken this long to get to the core four: it honestly doesn’t feel like the questions are as big surrounding Toronto’s individual stars as they were a year ago. Entering last year’s playoffs, Matthews and Marner were coming off the worst performances of their NHL careers. The usually dazzling duo combined for just one goal in their stunning Round 1 defeat to Montréal in 2021. Marner in particular looked lost at times during that Canadiens series. Both were fantastic last year, ranking ninth and 10th in Corey Sznajder’s Game Score metric on a per-60 basis.
Matthews hasn’t had the best regular season overall but does have 26 points in 19 games since the start of March. Combine that with career years for Marner and Nylander and Tavares still holding serve as an elite player, and it really feels like Toronto has found a healthy, winning balance. It also helps that this group seems like a good one to take advantage of one of Tampa Bay’s few weaknesses: rush defense. The Lightning were below league average at allowing shots off the rush at 5-on-5, while Toronto fired the third most shots off odd-man rushes per game, according to Stathletes.
For once, it’s not really a question of whether or not these players will produce anymore, which could create the freeing sensation for the Leafs to end their drought. It also helps the series starts in Toronto. The Leafs’ 27 home wins are tied for the most of any team that isn’t
literally the Monstars from Space Jam the Bruins.
Why Tampa Bay Wins
Because the Lightning simply don’t lose in the playoffs, at least not anymore. The Lightning have been a different franchise at every level since that infamous sweep to Columbus in 2019, using the disappointment to propel them to one the greatest three-year stretch of any team in the salary cap era. Over that stretch, only Colorado has a higher actual goals for percentage at 5-on-5 than Tampa Bay (57.37%). The Bolts also have a 52.4% expected goals mark at 5-on-5 to boot. And remember, a lot of those games came during the Conference and Stanley Cup Finals when the games get more intense and the opponents (at least in theory) are most challenging.
All of Tampa Bay’s stars are still going strong. Nikita Kucherov has put up the quietest 80-plus assist season in a long time, which is in large part due to the fact only six other players have reached that feat in a cap-era season, with only one other (Joe Thornton) hitting the mark twice. He’s top five in the league in Game Score. Brayden Point is putting up the quietest 50-goal campaign in a long time as well. Stamkos is both still driving play and scoring at an elite rate. Hedman is still Hedman. It feels like there’s a bit of fatigue around acknowledging the greatness of Tampa’s best because of how much we’ve seen them the last three springs/summers/falls (thanks for that extra caveat, COVID). But it isn’t something you should forget.
The second wave of support these stars have may be as good as its ever been, however. Three Bolts outside of their big three forwards have hit 60 points. Mikhail Sergachev has taken a huge step forward at both ends of the ice, making the pricey extension he signed last season look like an underpayment. 33-year-old Alex Killorn is delivering a career season as well. Brandon Hagel is looking like the top-six fixture Tampa Bay hoped they were getting when they traded for him last year. And most of last year’s supporting cast remains intact as well. Even unheralded names like Nick Perbix have stepped up for Jon Cooper‘s club when needed.
There aren’t many chinks in Toronto’s armor. But one of the few areas the Leafs grade out as below average is in carry-in percentage, an area where Tampa’s blueline is particularly stout. While Toronto grades out very strong on the forecheck, its best players are of course going to try and make plays at the Tampa Bay line. If the Lightning can turn those attempts into turnovers and opportunities in transition, it should allow their lethal, lightning-quick (no pun intended) stars like Point and Kucherov chances to attack on the rush.
When teams do get set up in the Tampa zone, the Lightning are slightly below average at preventing them from generating scoring chances. Having Vaslievskiy behind you helps, of course. Vasilevskiy is unsurprisingly back on his A-game, ranking sixth in the NHL in goals saved above expected. He can’t make up for every mistake a team makes, but he cancels out a lot of them. And the intangible value that comes from all of those deep playoff runs is perhaps stronger in Vasilevskiy than anyone else, especially given his downright dominant work in series clinchers over the last two years. In seven such games, he’s allowed a combined total of two goals. Two.
The Lightning may be a little bit weaker this year than a season ago. They’ve lost Ondřej Palát and Ryan McDonagh, and deadline pickup from Nashville Tanner Jeannot has both struggled to score and will likely be unavailable at the start of the series. But basically everything that makes the Lightning the Lightning is alive and well. And all of those things have made Tampa Bay’s hopes of a deep run the same three years running now — betting against that doesn’t sound like a smart thing to do.
Players to Watch
TOR: There will still be some people who wrongly proclaim the reason the Maple Leafs have failed to advance in the playoffs is their lack of physicality, that they aren’t a team “made for the playoffs.” That may have been a fair criticism in 2017 or 2018, but it doesn’t hold up now. There are a lot of players that are a part of that development, including deadline acquisitions Schenn and Acciari. But none of Toronto’s toughest players have as much series-changing potential as Michael Bunting.
When the teams met last year, Bunting was playing hurt, and it showed. He tallied just one goal after a 63-point season that nearly earned him the Calder at age 26. This season hasn’t been quite as much of a honeymoon as Bunting’s first in Toronto, either. He’s lost his spot alongside Matthews and has become a red-headed stepchild in the eyes of officials everywhere. The only thing that could make this more intriguing is if Bunting were to be a pending UFA ready for the first significant contract of his pro career. Oh, he is? Well then, consider all eyes on him.
TB: When these two teams squared off in last year’s playoffs, Brandon Hagel was still trying to find his place in Tampa Bay. Hagel was enjoying a career year in Chicago, thriving on a barren Blackhawks team that was willing to hand out minutes to anyone under 25 who looked the slightest bit deserving of them. Hagel was and then some, breaking out with 21 goals in 55 games before the Lightning acquired him for two first-round picks.
However, Hagel initially struggled to justify that investment. He tallied just 13 points in 45 games across the regular season and the playoffs for last year’s Lightning. This season, however, has been a different story. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to call it the same story as the one he was writing in the Windy City, as Hagel is enjoying another career season, to the tune of 30 goals and 64 points. He’s the obvious player to fill the void left by Palat’s departure as a top-six support piece for Tampa’s stars who can both do the little things well and chip in quite a bit of offense. He also has the type of snarl the Lightning love from their depth players. Although a strong performance in this series could officially solidify Hagel as something much more valuable than that.
This is almost certainly the hardest of any of this year’s first-round series to handicap. Last year’s series was essentially a coin flip. Toronto has probably gotten a little bit better at Tampa Bay a tad worse since then. But that may not be enough to close the gap. The Bolts have been pushed a handful of times during the playoffs over the last three years. The 5OT epic to begin their 2020 playoff run against Columbus. An equally close seven-game Eastern Conference Final against the brutal to play against Islanders the next year. A 2-0 deficit in last year’s ECF to the Rangers last season… and a 2-0 deficit in Game 3 of that series as well. Actually finishing them off is a whole different challenge.
Toronto has done everything in its power to meet that demand. There’s a little bit of everything in their lineup. Age, youth, grit, skill — you name it, the Maple Leafs have it. Their depth is outstanding, and their stars are game-breaking. So is Tampa Bay’s, of course. But Toronto is right there, and everyone knows it. Even Jon Cooper does. To beat a team like the Lightning, to throw a monkey as massive off of your back as the one attached to the Maple Leafs crest on every player’s jersey, it takes the whole organization doing everything right. If you achieve it, the results can be magical. But that if remains a monstrous one.
Still, Toronto has done just about everything in its power to earn a payoff. The margin for error is so small against the Lightning. But the margin between the teams last year was just as minuscule. And the Maple Leafs have done enough, from their roster changes to their player development, to close it. Maple Leafs in 6.
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 his; the prediction itself is mine.
I actually sort of hit on last year’s for this series; I said Alex Kerfoot would score a “big” short-handed goal. And while Kerfoot did light the lamp on the PK, all it did was turn a 5-2 Lightning lead late in Game 2 to 5-3, with Toronto unable to claw any closer. Even though he’s been a bit of a whipping boy amongst Toronto fans, I’ll stick with Kerfoot coming through in the clutch this year. But this time, it’s coming via a goal on the other special teams unit, the power play.