There are plenty of story lines in this first round matchup. Will Toronto get past the first round? Will the reigning Stanley Cup champs fight to keep what is theirs? Or will they go home after one round? Is the pressure to win a third straight Cup just too much to ask of the Tampa Bay Lightning?
In my 2021-2022 season prediction, I wrote that I thought the Lightning would “Three-peat”. For those that don’t know, I’m originally from Chicago and grew up a die-hard Cubs, Bears, Blackhawks and Bulls fan. I’ve been gone for close to 30 years now but a part of that childhood fandom remains. To that end, over the summer I watched the Netflix series The Last Dance.
This is the Michael Jordan produced documentary series about the two Three-peats he and his Chicago Bull teams won in the 1990’s. Sure, my interest was primarily watching a hometown team win multiple championships but as I watched and re-watched the series, I saw something,
I noticed the similarities between the Jordan Bulls with the Tampa Bay Lightning. I’m not talking about athletic abilities but rather the confidence and swagger between the two teams. Both teams had cerebral coaches who never got too high over a win or too low after a loss. One other similarity is that playoff opponents seemed intimidated to play these championship teams.
This first round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs will give us a preview to see if this Lightning team is able to accomplish this Three-peat.
Without question both teams in this series have offensive superstars. Auston Matthews just scored 60 goals this season. The Lightning have the last guy to reach that goal number in Steven Stamkos who is en fuego coming into the playoffs.
The Leafs can add Mitch Marner and William Nylander and John Tavares giving them a very potent offense. Second highest goal scoring team in the league. The Lightning can counter with former Hart winner Nikita Kucherov and Braydon Point. There will be plenty of offensive skills in this series. That’s usually the case in the postseason.
Like a lot of past playoffs, the winner of this series will most likely come down to secondary scoring. Which bottom two lines will provide the difference offensively? Would it surprise anyone to know that of the current bottom two lines for each team, the Lightning’s two have outscored the Maple Leafs 233 points to 137.
Hard to imagine Toronto having an answer for the Lightning’s fourth line of Corey Perry, P.E. Bellemare and Pat Maroon. They could be the difference in this series.
Advantage: Slight advantage to the Lightning
Overall, the two teams’ defenses were comparable in the regular season. Lightning had a goals against average of 2.78 while Toronto was at 3.07. The Leafs defense on the penalty kill was slightly better than the Lightning – 82.1% to 80.6%.
The Lightning have All-World Victor Hedman and his 132 career playoff games. He isn’t even the leader in postseason games among the defenseman. Ryan McDonagh has played in 162 playoff games. That alone is five more than the 157 postseason games played by the three defensive pairings of Toronto.
Overall, the Lightning defense has about three times more playoff experience than the Leafs defense. This disparity will show itself in this series. Like the Bulls of the Jordan era, the playoff experience is what carried them to win three in a row. If the playoffs become a matter of defense and goalies, then it follows that the experience of this Lightning defensive corps can carry this team, certainly past the first round.
Does anything more need to be said about Andrei Vasileskiy? Many share my opinion that he is flat out the best goalie on the planet. Does he have bad games? Sure, does he bring his A game most nights? He sure does, especially in the playoffs. He has won 63% of the postseason games he has started in his career. If that wasn’t impressive enough, over the last two postseasons, he’s won 71% of the games the team had.
In the last two Cup runs, the Lightning only faced one Game 7. That was due largely to the fact that in a series clinching games, Vasilevskiy is in pure lockdown mode. In the eight series in the last two postseasons, Vasilevskiy has allowed 7 goals in those eight series clinching games. Less than a goal a game. The last five series he has pitched five shutouts.
For Toronto, the pressure is on Jack Campbell. He put up very good numbers this season with a 91.4 save percentage and 2.64 goals against. The Toronto fan base is chomping at the bit for their team to get past the first round. Even though Campbell doesn’t play Vasilevskiy head to head, there will be comparisons. Pressure will be put upon Campbell to match Vasilevskiy especially if the Lightning steal home ice in the first two games.
Toronto was in the league’s top ten in both power play percentage and Penalty Kill effectiveness. Actually, their power play units were number one in the league. It is lethal if not defended well. It could not only change the course of a game but a series as well.
The Leafs penalty kill was 8th in the league this season and was boosted with the deadline acquisition of Mark Giordano. They’ve made it tough for teams with the man advantage and will be challenged with the Lightning power play.
The Lightning were the 8th on the power play so they’re no slouches. They have played well recently, spurred on by Stamkos and Kucherov. But they have their work cut out for them. On the PK side, the Lightning ended the season 11th in the league. They are facing a dangerous power play who are the best in the league.
Advantage: Maple Leafs
So Who Is Going to Win
Circling back to why I think this Lightning team is as dominant an NHL team as there has been in quite some time. In over 100 years of the NHL, only two previous franchises won at least three consecutive Stanley Cups. The Montreal Canadiens (1950’s & 1970’s) and the New York Islanders (1980’s). The quest the Lightning are about to embark upon can make them only the third team to accomplish this amazing feat.
So, there is no Michael Jordan equivalent on the Lightning but they do have this: In my opinion, they have the best goalie and best defenseman in the world. They have arguably two of the top 10 forwards in the league in Kucherov and Point. This doesn’t even take into account the heart of Ondrej Palat, the determination of Alex Killorn. .
Clearly, the gap between the Lightning and all other comers the last two years was huge. You don’t go 32-13 in the postseason by luck. Perhaps, that gap has tightened but this Lightning team has a huge motivation to win a third consecutive Cup.
We’ve all watched this team over the last few years and know what they are capable of doing. If anyone thinks the players, coaches and management aren’t aware of the history that can be theirs, you are mistaken.
Series Prediction: Lightning in 6
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