A first round series with the Toronto Maple Leafs seems eminent for the Tampa Bay Lightning should the NHL playoffs resume.
The Tampa Bay Lightning currently sit in Second place in the Atlantic Division. They are eight points behind the Boston Bruins for first place, and unlikely to catch them. However, they are 11 points ahead of the leafs with 12 games remaining. Firmly entrenched in second place, the Bolts would open up a series against Toronto at home when the NHL season resumes. Assuming the Lightning are healthy and mentally prepared, they match-up quite well against Toronto. The Bolts are better defensively, have better goaltending, and still have as much offensive firepower. The Lightning’s game is also better suited for the playoffs than the Leafs who lack a physical edge to their game. The Lightning also have something to prove after last year’s debacle in the first round.
Defense wins Championships
As good as last year’s team was, they had major defensive deficiencies. There were many times the Lightning outscored their problems and won games they should not have. This year has been the polar opposite. The offense has gone through slumps while the defense has enjoyed long stretches of fabulous play. A defensive mindset is key for the playoffs as goals become harder to come by, and the Lightning know this well as they were unable to outscore their problems last postseason. This year they are 28-2-0 recording when allowing two goals or less. The Bolts rank fifth in even strength goals against (144) and tenth in total goals against (194). They have given up the least amount of high danger scoring chances in the league with 137. Defensive is vital to a deep playoff run and the lightning have one of the best around.
On the flip side, it is no secret that Toronto has major defensive problems. They have no where near the depth on the blueline that the lightning do. Acquiring defenseman Jake Muzzin was a step in the right direction but may not be enough. The Leafs rank seventh worst in both goals against (222) and even strength goals against (172). They also come in at fifth worst in high danger scoring chances against with 230. Keeping the puck out of the net is pivotal come playoff time and there is little sign the Leafs have the pieces to keep up. In a series against Toronto, you have to give a decisive defensive edge to the Lightning.
Although the power play was slumping going into the stoppage, there are few teams that can match the Lightning in this category. Toronto however, is definitely one of them. This should come as no surprise with weapons such as John Tavares and Austin Matthews. Toronto’s power play ranks sixth (just behind the Lightning) at 23.08% with 45 goals. They move the puck incredibly well and have tremendous individual skill with William Nylander in the slot and newly acquired defenseman Tyson Barrie running point, along with Tavares and Matthews. For as good as their power play is however, the Leafs penalty kill is not very good. They are 11th worst in the league killing off only 77.72% of their penalties. For as bad as their PK is they are one of the more disciplined teams averaging only 6.3 penalty minutes per game. This means any kind of penalty trouble could spell disaster for Toronto.
The Lightning are 14th in the league with a PK percentage of 81.39%. Injuries to key denfensemen have caused the numbers to dip from earlier in the season. However, Coleman and Goodfrow were both brought in to help sure up the PK and once acclimated will improve the unit vastly. Tampa Bay gets a slight edge in special teams. They have a comparable power play and a better penalty kill.
In a series against Toronto, goaltending will be pivotal. Andrei Vasilevskiy is a game changer and can single handedly steal a game. He is once again in the Veizna Trophy discussion with a .917 save percentage and has the most wins at 35. However, one should not look past Frederick Andersen. Holding a .909 save percentage and 2.85 goals against average, these numbers are likely a result of Toronto’s poor defense. Andersen has been and is still very good, but Vasilevskiy is better. Tampa again gets the edge, but only slightly.
The Lightning are the better team. They defend better, are more physical, and have a world class goalie. Their special teams are superior and have just as much individual skill offensively. Tampa Bay also has a point to prove to everyone. That they are not the team that got swept a year ago and will do what it takes to win. This makes them evermore dangerous. In a series against Toronto, the Lightning have a clear edge.
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