It’s been said often that the NHL regular season is merely a dress rehearsal for the real NHL season. The NHL playoffs are the real season because only the 16 teams in the postseason can win the Stanley Cup. The first team that can win 16 games in four rounds will hoist the Cup. For the sixth consecutive season, the Tampa Bay Lightning have qualified for the playoffs. For the second consecutive postseason the Lightning will face the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round.
Last season, the Lightning beat the Maple Leafs in the first round playoff series in seven games. Like the upcoming series, the Leafs had home ice advantage last season. It didn’t matter then. Will it make a difference this year? Here’s my breakdown and prediction of this first round playoff series.
There is no question that the Leafs have offensive firepower. Auston Matthews, William Nylander, John Tavares and Mitch Marner all scored at least 30 goals this season. To combat these offensive juggernauts, the Lightning also have four players who scored at least 30 goals this season. Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brandon Hagel reached that mark.
Like many playoff series, the secondary scoring (from bottom two lines) will loom large. The top four for Toronto tallied 146 goals. While the Lightning’s top four netted 145 goals. Basically, a coin toss. The rest of the Leafs team scored 132 goals. For the Lightning, the rest of the team scored 135 goals. For the season, Tampa scored 280 goals and Toronto netted 278 goals. These two teams offensively could not be closer. Advantage: Even
This was the most interesting category to me. Without a doubt, this is the one category that Toronto has made the most improvement from seasons past. Last season, the Leafs gave up 3.07 goals against in the regular season. This season, they dropped that to 2.68 goals against. Conversely, the Lightning went from giving up 2.78 goals against last season to 3.07 this season. Last season in the first round, the Leafs went from 3.07 goals against to 3.29 against the Lightning. Also, last season the Lightning went from 2.68 goals against to 3.43 against the Leafs. The Bolts still managed to beat the Leafs.
In case you’re wondering just how in the hell did the Lightning win the series last May? In the Leafs three series wins, they won by a combined score of 14-5. Unfortunately, for Toronto they lost four games by a combined score of 18-10. So, what does this prove, you might be asking? In my mind, this is the playoff experience coming into play. Of the expected starters for Toronto, they have a total of 161 playoff games experience. This includes zero for expected starter Jake McCabe. Tampa expected starters have 430 playoff games under their belt with two players playing in their first playoff games. Rookies Nick Perbix and Darren Raddysh have no playoff experience.
Tampa still has two of the elite defensemen in the league in Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev. I know Toronto fans will say Mark Giordano and Morgan Reilly match the two Tampa defenders. Maybe a half decade ago Giordano could be considered in this classification. Reilly while a solid defenseman is on the Leafs third pairing. No elite D-man is on the third line pairing. Advantage: Slight edge to Tampa
Two words: Andrei Vasilevskiy. Yes, he didn’t have a good year by his standards but let’s drill down on him. His goals against this year was 2.65. Throughout his career, his goals against is 2.52. While panic set in among many Lightning fans, his goals against was only 0.13 higher this year. Over 82 regular season games, this would equate to 10.7 goals. Further, Vasilevskiy’s save percentage this season is .915. His career save percentage is .919. The potential bad news for Toronto is how Vasilevskiy elevates his game in the playoffs. His postseason goals against is 2.30 and his postseason save percentage is .923.
There is no question that Ilya Samsonov had a career year. He ended with a goals against of 2.33 in 42 games. He also had a save percentage of .919 this season. No matter how you slice it, this is a stellar year for any goaltender. For his career, this season was a much better year than his career numbers. In his career, his goals against is 2.65 with a save percentage of .908. As far as playoffs, Samsonov has played in eight postseason games with a 1 and 6 record and a 2.98 goals against. His playoff save percentage is .907. Advantage: Lightning
Another category that is very close. On the power play, the Leafs were effective on 26.0% of their opportunities with the extra man. Meanwhile, the Lightning finished the regular season at 25.4% on the power play. This difference between 26.0 and 25.4 is absolutely negligible. On the penalty kill, the Leafs finished the regular season killing off 81.9% of their penalties. While the Lightning killed 79.7% of their penalties. Again, this difference is meaningless. If both teams get 15 penalties over the course of the series, both teams would allow only 3 goals. Advantage: The Slightest of edge to Toronto
First Round Preview Recap
This will be a close series. I’ve seen Toronto fans think the Leafs could sweep the Lightning. I’m not of the opinion that either team can sweep the other. Throughout the season, I’ve been asked what is wrong with the Lightning? I’ve stayed consistent with my answer. Over the three previous seasons, in my opinion, the Lightning were the best team in the league. The gap between them and the rest of the league seemed significant. Evidenced by three straight trips to the Cup Final winning two of those. That gap no longer exists as parity in the league among top teams is apparent. Even if the Lightning were to win the first round series, they still have a steep hill to climb. So, what could tip the scales besides the players?
The coaches. Tampa has Jon Cooper and his resume should be the envy of the league’s coaches. In 10 full seasons behind the Lightning bench, Cooper has led his team to the playoffs nine times. Of those playoff teams, Cooper has coached in six Eastern Conference Finals, winning four of those. Of those four, he’s won two Stanley Cups. For Toronto, Sheldon Keefe has led his team to the playoffs two of his three seasons. Both postseason appearances ended in first round Game 7 defeats. Series Prediction: Lightning in 6 games.
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