Maple Leafs finally look ready to slay first-round demons vs. Lightning

It's do or die for the Leafs, who will have to go through the dynastic Lightning to finally advance past the opening round.

Here it goes again. For the second consecutive year, the Toronto Maple Leafs square off against the class of the Eastern Conference in the Tampa Bay Lightning in what could be a franchise-defining series for the Scotiabank Arena denizens.

The No. 2 seed Maple Leafs are tougher, more balanced, more experienced with their stars entering their apex years and yet, the question still remains: is this the year the Maple Leafs finally win a round? Kyle Dubas’s immediate future relies upon it and make no mistake, drastic changes are in order if this group can’t get past the three-time conference champion Lightning, who are looking to fortify their legacy as one of the all-time great NHL teams.

In fairness to Dubas and the Maple Leafs’ executive branch, the team went all-in at the deadline to fortify a core that is firmly in the prime of their careers. Mitch Marner emerged as the team MVP and likely Selke finalist with a dominant two-way campaign where he’s once again among the NHL’s defining stars. William Nylander’s dynamic skating and playmaking reached a new echelon, but he’s not satisfied. Auston Matthews is beginning to shoot the lights out again, while John Tavares has been a consistent source of goal-mouth offence, faceoff victories and power-play scoring.

If you felt the group lacked toughness, enter Luke Schenn and Noel Acciari, as the former returns to Toronto with two Cup rings in tow while operating as a safety valve for Morgan Rielly, and the latter has added real scoring punch to the bottom-six combinations. If you felt the lineup lacked positional flexibility, Ryan O’Reilly can be shifted to the third line in a moment’s notice or can form a turbo-charged Ontario line with Tavares and Marner flanking him. He also comes with a Cup and Conn Smythe in his trophy case.

If you felt like the Maple Leafs’ defence lacked a true shutdown unit, deadline acquisition Jake McCabe and T.J. Brodie have quietly become one of the most reliable pairings in the league. Ilya Samsonov also developed into a top-10 goalie this season, while Joseph Woll is showing — in short stints — that he’s a capable No. 2 goalie with a much higher ceiling than previously indicated.

These aren’t the same old Maple Leafs, but they’ll desperately need a first-round victory, and more, to silence the legion of critics, whose volume will amplify to airplane hangar decibel levels if the team loses again. Sheldon Keefe stands as one of the winningest coaches in franchise history and usually, consecutive 109-point regular seasons would be good enough to avoid major changes. Toronto was one overtime goal away from knocking off Tampa Bay last year — close, but not remotely close enough to earn the proverbial cigar. Not in this market. Enough is enough, it’s time for some progress or heads will roll.

Everything is on the line for the Maple Leafs as they face the Lightning in the first round of the playoffs for the second consecutive year. (Getty Images)
Everything is on the line for the Maple Leafs as they face the Lightning in the first round of the playoffs for the second consecutive year. (Getty Images)

It’s an entirely different set of circumstances for the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are looking to fortify their legacy as one of the greatest teams in NHL history. Until proven otherwise, the Lightning are the class of the East, in search of their fourth consecutive ticket to the Stanley Cup final. Jon Cooper and Julien BriseBois are the NHL’s best coach and general manager, respectively, and Cooper’s tactical adjustments remain a cut above the rest.

Toronto boasts superior shot-creation and defensive metrics, but make no mistake, this Tampa Bay team should frighten the hell out of its opponent. Nikita Kucherov is amid the quietest 112-point season you’ll ever see, Brayden Point scored 51 goals, while Steven Stamkos is still playing at a point-per game pace. Brandon Hagel evolved into a two-way pest this year, reaching the 30-goal plateau while Alex Killorn remains one of the NHL’s best forwards, providing strong ancillary offence to support the team’s core.

Victor Hedman isn’t a Norris candidate this year, but the 2020 Conn Smythe Trophy winner always ascends to a different level in the playoffs, while Mikhail Sergachev notched 10 goals and 62 points, providing a tremendous physical presence to boot. Time and again, the occupational hazards that come with prolonged winning — players leaving in expansion drafts or getting the bag in free agency, or electing to take a larger role — aren’t an impediment to the Lightning. They adapt, they adjust and they’re rolling with four defensemen in Hedman, Sergachev, Erik Cernak and Zach Bogosian who have won Stanley Cups with the team. But Tampa Bay is not operating with the same proficiency as it did two years ago. Will its championship pedigree and continuity be enough to stifle a slightly more talented Maple Leafs team?

Andrei Vasilevskiy is having a down year by his standards, which is to say, at worst, he’s been a top-seven goaltender in the NHL and remains one of the league’s all-time best playoff performers. Vasilevskiy may be the difference in simple terms. On any given night, he is the danger, the element that made a star-studded Lightning team a downright impossibility to take down in the earlier stages of the dynasty. Vasilevskiy shut the door on the Maple Leafs’ hopes last year in Game 7, and once again, it’s easy to envision the all-world goaltender adding to his first-ballot Hall of Fame legacy with another series of clutch performances.

Tampa Bay is competing with the ghosts of history, with its closest historical parable coming four decades ago when the New York Islanders won four consecutive Cups before burning out against Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers in 1984. For the Maple Leafs, the NHL’s longest Cup drought in a frenzied market that is demanding results from their best regular season teams in franchise history provides a fever-pitch, possibly insurmountable level of pressure. The stakes for each team couldn’t be any different, but once the puck drops, we’re in for another classic.

What have you done for me lately?

After acquiring O’Reilly, Acciari, McCabe, Schenn, power-play specialist Erik Gustafsson and bottom-six speedster Sam Lafferty at the deadline, Toronto has used the final month and change to experiment with its optimal lineup combinations in 11- and 12-forward formats. Keefe seems to have found his optimal combinations and the Maple Leafs are scorching opponents with the NHL’s second-best power play, scoring at a 26-percent clip. Since March 1, Toronto has posted a 13-6-3 record, while Matthews is shooting like he did during his Hart campaign last year.

Tampa Bay struggled through March, particularly during a five-game skid where Cooper elected to bench Stamkos, Kucherov and Point during a 5-3 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on March 4. The idea that the Lightning should panic felt patently ridiculous, but after reaching their nadir during a 6-0 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on March 5, their struggles somewhat continued as the Lightning posted a 10-9-1 record afterwards. They have all the talent, experience and rings in the world, but the Lightning may be out of gas.

Toronto defeated Tampa Bay 4-3 at Amalie Arena with Matthews, Marner and Mark Giordano resting on April 11, where Joseph Woll showed that he could operate as the team’s backup goalie without consternation, while Matthew Knies may have earned a spot in the playoff lineup. In some ways, this was a throwaway game given that the Maple Leafs benched three of their most important players, but Toronto won the head-to-head series, 2-1.

The Maple Leafs win if…

Toronto’s improved roster flexibility counterbalances Tampa Bay’s, if Matthews and Marner emerge as the best players in the series and Samsonov steals a game.

The Lightning win if…

Vasilevskiy adds to his pedigree as one of the best playoff goaltenders of all-time and if Kucherov, Point and Stamkos outperform Matthews, Marner and Nylander.

Series hero

Matthews may not be the Hart Trophy winner this year, but he’s submitted another incredible body of work, particularly on the defensive end, where he leads all forwards in blocked shots. The reigning MVP knows how important this series is for his team’s arc and doesn’t want the fabric of the group to be amended after another disappointment. It’s time for the game’s best shooter to light the lamp and send Toronto into a frenzy.

The Fernando Pisani Trophy (Unsung hero)

Calle Jarnkrok has excelled during a late-season promotion to the first line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, while proving he’s capable of providing meaningful offence at 5-on-5 throughout the lineup. Jarnkrok reached the 20-goal plateau for the first time in his career, he wins puck battles, he’s a capable playmaker, and he may slip under the radar with Tampa Bay’s attention rightly focused on Toronto’s core four forwards.


Toronto in seven.