With the Tampa Bay Lightning vying for their third straight Stanley Cup crown and the Toronto Maple Leafs attempting to progress past the first round for the first time since 2004, there’s arguably more on the line in this playoff series than any other.
Only the Penguins vs. Rangers series is, according to NHL playoff odds, more evenly matched than the highlighted battle between the Leafs and Lightning.
NHL betting lines have Toronto as -120 series favorites and the Lightning as slim +100 underdogs. Contrary to what the odds indicate, it’s the defending Cup champions who should be feeling better about the first-round matchup.
The pressure is squarely on Toronto’s collective shoulders.
It’s rather strange when there is more pressure on a five-time first-round loser than the back-to-back Stanley Cup winners. Such is the omnipresent tension currently reverberating across Leafs nation.
If Toronto loses a sixth consecutive first-round series, mass changes could be afoot, not only in terms of players but upper management too. The Maple Leafs, with their abundance of talent and free-flowing, enterprising brand of hockey, are expected to win now.
That expectation, due to the team’s chronic playoffs’ impotence, hasn’t been met. So is it the Leafs turn to finally conquer what must seem like a skyscraper-sized initial hurdle?
Maple Leafs, Lightning Split Season Series
Both teams won two games, one at home and one in the other’s barn. Both teams won closely contested affairs and both also annihilated each other. It is worth noting, that neither Austin Matthews nor Jack Campbell played in Tampa Bay’s 8-1 victory on April 21.
Both teams scored first twice and both were 4-for-11 on the power-play across the four games.
Both starting netminders, Campbell and Andrei Vasilevskiy, endured one ugly outing, with the latter allowing six in a 6-2 defeat. The 2021 Conn Smythe winner had a meager .846 save percentage in that game.
Campbell allowed five in a 5-3 defeat on Dec. 9. In that game, he was only able to manage a .846 save percentage. Yes, the exact same save percentage that Vasilevskiy obtained on his rare off night.
The Maple Leafs outshot Tampa in each of the four battles, while the Lightning returned the favor in terms of hits, winning the physical duel on all four occasions.
Continuing the trend of unparalleled parity, both teams enter the playoffs with similar records in their past 10 contests. The Leafs were 7-2-1 and the Lightning 7-3-0.
3 Key Factors For Maple Leafs vs. Lightning
Playoff series are often determined by special teams’ efficacy. This series will be no different. The Maple Leafs had the league’s most prolific power-play, scoring at an absurdly efficient 27.3%.
Stopping that will be priority No. 1 for Jon Cooper and his Lightning squad.
The Lightning have the 11th-ranked penalty kill and, most worryingly, were the NHL’s second-most penalized team in the regular season. To have any chance of a three-peat, they must be physical yet disciplined, aggressive yet controlled, forcing into navigating the thinnest of tightropes.
While owing an inferior eighth-ranked power-play, the Lightning are blessed with a glut of offensive talent who can make Toronto pay for any indiscipline.
Primary and depth scoring are equally as important.
Both teams rely heavily on their top players to rise to the occasion, and the pressure will be swelling in Toronto. Matthews, who scored 60 goals in the regular season, has never been able to extend his elite point-getting status into the playoffs.
Last season was Exhibit A amidst a long line of evidence that details postseason underperformance. Matthews and Mitch Marner combined for a single goal (scored by Matthews) in the entire seven-game series against Montreal. That led directly to Toronto’s demise.
The same thing will invariably happen this year if Toronto’s top scorers fail to show up again when it matters most.
Last, but never least is, you guessed it, goaltending. Everyone knows who has the unequivocal advantage between the pipes.
Even Vasilevskiy will admit that he hasn’t been at his Vezina-winning best this season. But he has the capacity to turn it on in an instant. And if he does, the Leafs are doomed. However, Vasilevskiy, against all hyperbole and conjecture, is human, something he’ll prove in this series.
In the opposite net stands the enigmatic, yet inconsistent Campbell. He has shown signs of recovering from a mid-season slump and must be consistently stable for the Maple Leafs to have any chance whatsoever.
If the Leafs are to advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2004, they’re certainly going to deserve it.
Maple Leafs vs. Lightning Best Bets
Series Winner: Toronto Maple Leafs: -120
Series to End in Seven Games: +200
Toronto Maple Leafs to Win 4-3: +425