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Maple Leafs vs. Lightning: 3 Things to Know about First Round series

With the Stanley Cup Playoffs upon us, Pro Hockey Talk's Sean Leahy previews the Eastern Conference bracket, from the Lightning's quest for a three-peat to the Maple Leafs looking to exorcise half a century of demons.

The 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs began on Monday, May 2. Today, we preview the series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning

Maple Leafs vs. Lightning schedule

Game 1: May 2, 7:30 p.m. ET – Lightning at Maple Leafs (Sportsnet, CBC, TVA Sports, ESPN2)
Game 2: May 4, 7:30 p.m. ET – Lightning at Maple Leafs (Sportsnet, CBC, TVA Sports, ESPN2)
Game 3: May 6, 7:30 p.m. ET – Maple Leafs at Lightning (TBS, Sportsnet, CBC, TVA Sports)
Game 4: May 8, 7 p.m. ET – Maple Leafs at Lightning (TBS, Sportsnet, CBC, TVA Sports)
*Game 5: May 10, TBD – Lightning at Maple Leafs (TBD)
*Game 6: May 12, TBD – Maple Leafs at Lightning (TBD)
*Game 7: May 14, TBD – Lightning at Maple Leafs (TBD)

1. All of the pressure is on Toronto

Talk about two teams with two very different track records over the past seven years. Since the start of the 2014-15 season Tampa Bay has won a league best 70 playoff games (28 more than the next closest team during that stretch), reached at least the Conference Finals in five of the seven seasons, played in three Stanley Cup Finals, and won the past two Stanley Cups. They are a dominant, dominant team.

Toronto? Well, the Maple Leafs have lost in the First Round in each of the past five years despite a big-money, big-talent core while the organization has not won a playoff series of any kind since the 2003-04 playoffs. Before the salary cap era even began.

It is pretty obvious which team has the most pressure here, and it is one million percent the Maple Leafs.

If Tampa Bay loses it might be a disappointment for fans to see their quest for a three-peat come to an end, but they have earned a leash and will get the “well it is tough to win three years in a row” benefit of the doubt.

If Toronto loses in the First Round with this core for a sixth consecutive year the city is going to have a meltdown and you have to expect significant changes to come somewhere in the organization. After all, it is not like Toronto has been losing to heavy favorites lately. Two years ago they lost to a Columbus team that had the 14th best points percentage in the league in a play-in series, and last year they lost to a Montreal team that was fourth place in the All-Canada division and then came back this season with the worst record in the league. They lose as favorites, they lose as underdogs. They just have to win. If they do not, nobody is going to care about their regular season win total (which set a franchise record), or Auston Matthews scoring 60 goals (also a franchise record) and winning a second straight Rocket Richard Award, or Mitch Marner’s point total. It is time to win. Right now.

2. Did Tampa Bay do enough to replace its scoring depth?

There are a lot of reasons Tampa Bay won the past two Stanley Cups, and its depth beyond its top scorers is one of the biggest. But this past offseason salary cap issues forced them to trade Tyler Johnson and say goodbye to their dominant third line of Blake Coleman (Calgary), Yanni Gourde (Seattle), and Barclay Goodrow (New York Rangers).

Tampa Bay has replaced that collection of forwards internally (Ross Colton), through free agency (Corey Perry, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare) and at the trade deadline (Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul).

So how do they compare?

Let’s compare two sets of numbers on how the Lightning have performed during 5-on-5 play without their big three forwards (Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Brayden Point) on the ice.

During the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons (when Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup both years) they outscored teams by a 145-125 margin (53 percent goal share), and had a better than 52 percent share of total shot attempts, scoring chances, high-danger scoring chances, and expected goals.

In other words, when their big three were not on the ice they still outplayed and outscored their opponents,

This season? Their goal share has actually improved in those situations (71-60; a 54 percent share), while their shot attempt, scoring chance, and expected goal shares are all nearly identical. Meaning their depth is still excellent even if the new players may not be quite as good (or seem quite as good) as the players that left.

After a slump late in the season the Lightning seemingly flipped the switch late over the past week or two to close the regular season.

3. Tampa Bay has the goalie advantage in a big way (on paper anyway)

This is going to be the X-factor matchup in the series because, well, goaltending always is.

On the Tampa Bay side we have Andrei Vasilevskiy, the best goalie on the planet and a total game-changer when he is at his best. When he is at his best it makes the Lightning almost unbeatable behind this collection of talent at forward and defense. His numbers this season have not been as strong as they typically are, but everybody knows what he is capable of.

The big question is going to be whether or not he runs out of steam. He has played a lot of hockey the past few years and literally played every minute of the past two playoff runs for the Lightning.

On the Toronto side we have Jack Campbell, a total mystery right now whose season has been a roller coaster of ups and downs. He started off great, was awful for three months in the middle of the season and then missed time with an injury, and then started to play better down the stretch going into the playoffs.

On paper this is a big advantage for Tampa Bay, but if Toronto gets the early season version of Campbell (and the version that is entering the playoffs on a 7-0-2 run over his past nine appearances) that gap could close a little bit.

Prediction: Lightning win in six games