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2022 NHL playoff preview: Maple Leafs vs. Lightning

The Maple Leafs just put up their best season in franchise history, earning 54 wins and 115 points. They were a regular-season powerhouse that showed they belong within the league’s upper echelon, finishing fourth in the standings.

Their reward? The two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. Of course.

It probably doesn’t matter who Toronto plays as the real season begins. The Leafs lost when they were heavy underdogs to Washington and Boston. They lost when they were neck-and-neck with Boston. And they lost when they were heavy favorites against Columbus and Montreal. It doesn’t matter who is on the other side because the Leafs’ biggest enemy is themselves.

The odds do not matter.

They’re a reflection of an unsentient model that does not know anything other than how well the Leafs have played over the last few regular seasons. Are the Leafs cursed? The model does not know. Do they know how to win when it counts? The model does not know. Do the Lightning have the ability to flip the switch now that the playoffs are here? The model does not know.

And so, like a naive child, it thinks that this time, things will be different. The model is obviously not a Leafs fan, or biased toward the Leafs – because a Leafs fan would know better. It’s the hope that kills you and the model is currently suffocating on it.

No, that’s not a typo. According to The Model, the defending Stanley Cup champions are substantial underdogs in this series – something not even their size advantage fixes. If the playoffs really are a different beast and certain teams just know how to win, then this kind of probability is just downright egregious… right?

Every season is a brand new one and though we use priors to help inform what to expect, the most recent season will always hold the most weight. And in the year 2022, the Leafs were a better team than the Lightning. Special teams, even strength, top end talent, depth, you name it – the edge goes to Toronto. The Leafs best players got better while the Lightning’s regressed, all while losing key talent in the offseason. The Leafs should be favored, they finished well ahead of the Lightning after all.

That bears out in the numbers below, but by this much against this team feels almost masochistic. The Lightning are a team that knows how to win, and how to elevate their games when it counts. That’s a frightening proposition from a modeling perspective when only regular-season stats are considered and that’s likely where the gap lies.

Maybe this is the year for the Leafs to finally breakthrough – and it was only a few years ago where Tampa Bay was in a similar boat. You’re not a winner until you win and that’s a worthy consideration in terms of “knowing how to win.”

The sixth time’s the charm, but once Tampa Bay flips the switch, it’s difficult to see the gap between these two clubs be as big as the model makes it out to be.

A key difference between the Lightning and Maple Leafs that influences that gap is each team’s offense. Toronto’s been a top-five team across the board. While their shot and quality chance generation has slipped a bit as of late, it’s not noticeable on the scoresheet with their finishing taking things up a notch. The more realistic expectation is closer to their season-wide accomplishments versus this last month of play, but either way, this is a team in a very good position to do some damage this postseason.

Tampa Bay, on the other hand, is in a tier below offensively. That may seem surprising given some of the elite players they have up front. Some of their season-wide numbers are influenced by player absences to start the season – most notably Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov. While they stayed afloat, trends below the surface were more indicative of how they were actually performing.

Defensively, the matchup is close. These are two teams closely matched in the shots and quality chances they allow against. As of late, Toronto’s been the better team in suppressing offense. But without as much stability in net, it doesn’t always seem that way on the scoresheet which can mitigate Toronto’s offensive edge.

So why are the Leafs such heavy favorites? Let’s start at the very top with what is arguably now the league’s best duo: Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

No player, skater or goalie has a higher projected GSVA than Matthews at 6.8 wins. He’s rated that high, the highest this model has ever rated any player, because he’s played around or above that level in two straight seasons, doing a lot of things the model loves: score lots of goals and influence play at both ends of the ice. Matthews has now scored at a 65-goal pace or higher in back-to-back seasons putting his projected goal total at 61.6 over 82 games. To be a true talent 50-goal scorer is incredible in this league, but over 60 goals is an entirely new level. To be able to be counted to score that consistently is an extremely special gift and is the biggest reason Matthews is so valuable.

He’s also a force at both ends of the ice. For the season Matthews posted a stunning 64 percent expected goals rate, the fourth-highest mark in the analytics era. Controlling play at that level is obscene and is what makes Matthews so tough to stop. When he’s on the ice it’s heavily tilted toward the offensive zone. And if he’s in the offensive zone, there’s a good chance he’s scoring.

Matthews doesn’t operate alone though and the presence of Marner is obviously a massive plus. It’s possible neither player could achieve their current heights without the other, but that’s not a real worry when they do have each other. The chemistry between the two is sensational with Marner’s elite play-making ability helping Matthews reach such incredible goal-scoring heights. Both would be elite in their own right, but this transcendent level they’ve shown this year is a testament to how much the duo elevates each other.

Now… can they do it in the playoffs? That’s the big question here, one that neither will be able to escape until they actually do it. Matthews was the best player in the league this season and Marner wasn’t far behind – they need to show they can be that when the games matter most or it’ll all be for nothing.

That’s something the Lightning’s star players learned ahead of their back-to-back championships. Now their top players face a different kind of pressure: surpassing what they’ve already accomplished.

Going into this series, Kucherov projects to be the most valuable of Tampa Bay’s forwards worth 4.1 wins. This time, he has a regular season under his belt and shouldn’t face some of the same issues he did last year trying to get back into game shape once the postseason was already underway.

Kucherov missed a chunk of time earlier this season, so his scoring doesn’t quite match up to some of the league’s best. But when accounting for minutes played, he slides right into the top three in the league with 4.38 points per 60 in all situations. That’s the second-best of his career, only to a remarkable 128-point 2018-19 season. He’s a weapon on the power play with his shooting accuracy and sneaky good puck movement to set up the likes of Steven Stamkos with a royal road pass. That holds true at five-on-five, where he’s one of the most positive influences on the team’s offense. Few can generate shots off the cycle like Kucherov can. The area of weakness, however, is his play back in his own zone. And against a team with as much firepower as the Maple Leafs, that could easily burn them if coach Jon Cooper opts for a power-versus-power matchup.

Another scoring threat on that top line is Stamkos, who hit the 100-point mark for the first time in his career with 42 goals and 64 assists. He ended the regular season with a hat trick over the Islanders that extended his point streak to 11 games with 26 points. The Lightning are obviously hoping that parlays into a postseason run similar to last year, where he had 18 points in 23 games.

The Lightning earned 61 percent of the goals with Stamkos on the ice this year thanks to his offensive output and 53 percent of the expected goals. Stamkos can challenge defenders with his lethal shot – which Kucherov’s passing can elevate – or he can set his teammates up as well. That makes having this pair on the same line all the more challenging for defenders, since it’s tough to anticipate how a play will develop between these two. Ondrej Palat’s no pushover either, though not at the level of his linemates; he’s a key facilitator who shouldn’t be overlooked.

Unlike the Maple Leafs, there aren’t two elite talents on the second line. That is reserved only for Brayden Point, who hasn’t even been his usual game-breaking self this season. That, of course, could change over the next couple of weeks – if anyone rises to the occasion when it matters most, it’s Point. He’s the engine of this team. The Lightning center is elite in transition with his explosive skating.

The reason Point’s value is so low is that the Lightning just weren’t as dominant as you’d expect with him on the ice. They earned just 51 percent of the actual and expected goals and his 58 points in 66 games only equate to a 72-point pace. At five-on-five, his 1.88 points-per-60 was his lowest in five seasons – and that was with a sky-high 11.4 percent on-ice shooting percentage. He just wasn’t as involved in the offense as usual.

Tampa Bay has three star-level forwards, but according to the model the Leafs have five which is tied with Colorado for the league lead. Matthews and Marner aren’t debatable in that regard and few would argue against John Tavares or William Nylander either, both of whom were close to being point-per-game players. That second dynamic duo makes Toronto’s offense such a huge threat and if the top two lines are clicking at the same time that’ll be a big problem for the Lightning.

Where there’s likely contention is putting Michael Bunting in the same category – with a projected GSVA higher than Point! That’s not something either of us agree with, but Bunting is the real deal on the top line. He’s not the reason it’s arguably the league’s best, but he’s an important cog in the machine. Bunting’s inflated value obviously stems from playing with Matthews and Marner which has led to a 3.16 points-per-60 at five-on-five (eighth in the league) and a 61 percent expected goals rate. The model sees that and thinks “star” and though it adjusts his value for playing with two superstars, it may not be enough.

Toronto’s top line earned two-thirds of the actual and expected goals this season, behind only two lines led by Patrice Bergeron. Unfortunately for Toronto, the Leafs may have to see how much value Bunting actually brings to the fold considering he may not be available for the start of the series.


Will the Maple Leafs’ dynamic duo rise to the occasion in the postseason? (Winslow Townson / USA Today)

The Lightning’s supporting cast is filled with skilled players. Anthony Cirelli’s developed into a shutdown center worthy of Selke consideration and is one of the Lightning’s best forecheckers. Palat and Alex Killorn have been a part of this core for years. But some of their performances have fallen short of years past. Could that change when the stakes rise? Tampa Bay should hope so since they’re going up against such a deep team.

Cirelli will be a vital player to watch in this series for his shutdown prowess. If Kucherov and Stamkos can’t be trusted against Toronto’s top line in a power vs. power setting, it’ll be up to Cirelli to be a thorn in their side, much like Phillip Danault last year. Cirelli is more than capable of that, but it’ll be a matter of whether he has the requisite help for such a challenge. And while Cirelli and the third line can help mitigate things in their own zone, finding offence might be a challenge. That third line has had very little scoring luck, but generates a high rate of shots and doesn’t allow too much back. That latter part will be the key.

The Lightning have a high quantity of good players and it gives them plenty of options for the right lineup mix. The question is whether they can find that mix quickly in this series if the current set-up doesn’t click. Regardless, it’s not enough to overcome Toronto’s top-end edge. And to Toronto’s credit, the Leafs have some solid players in the supporting cast too.

On defense is where things get really interesting. With both teams matching up evenly in value it’ll be a question of whether the strongest or weakest link prevails.

If it’s the strongest, Tampa Bay having Victor Hedman is going to be a big storyline. It’s no surprise he’s the most valuable defenseman in this matchup at a projected 3.6 wins. Hedman can do it all, in all situations, at the most crucial moments of the game. He’s already shown the rest of the league how he can command a series – even while battling injury like he did last year, or on his way to the Conn Smyth Trophy in 2020. Now he’s coming off a great regular season and is going to get put to the test against some of the top forwards in the league. After a so-so 2021 campaign where he was hurt by injuries, Hedman’s on-ice numbers came roaring back this year as he posted a 54 percent expected goals rate and 57 percent of the actual goals. We’ll see if he can keep that up against Toronto’s puck possession game.

The Leafs have a fine number one in Morgan Rielly themselves – he’s just not Hedman. Rielly is incredibly dynamic with the puck and one of the league’s best puck-movers, but he has his warts defensively. It feels like he often gets underrated for that reason though and what he brings to the table on offense more than makes up for what he gives back the other way. Having a steady presence on his right side certainly helps too and Ilya Lyubushkin has filled that role fine.

That’s allowed for some interesting ‘second’ and ‘third’ pairings, terms that can be used loosely with the Leafs considering how strong the rest of the defense grades out. It’s here where Toronto really shines in not just this series, but relative to the league. From one-to-six it’s hard to find a defense corps as deep as Toronto’s – and that doesn’t even include a “fourth” pair featuring Rasmus Sandin and Justin Holl, both of whom also grade out well.

Toronto, for the first time in a long time, does not have a weak link on its backend and that could be a huge advantage in this series. Jake Muzzin and TJ Brodie make a decent shutdown pair that’s on par with Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak in value. Neither has played up to their usual standards this year, but they have the talent to turn things around playing together.

The crown jewel though might be the lightning in a bottle Toronto found with its third pair featuring deadline acquisition Mark Giordano and rookie Timothy Liljegren. Giordano has been as great as advertised posting a 61 percent expected goals rate with the Leafs and has been a terrific mentor to Liljegren, the analytics darling. He has one of the highest expected goals rates in the league and has found great chemistry with Giordano. It’s the best “third” pair in the league, and one the team can feel comfortable playing against anyone. That’s a luxury the Leafs have never really been afforded.

That aforementioned shutdown pair of McDonagh and Cernak tend to take on the toughest matchups for the Lightning, freeing Hedman up slightly. And the two tend to manage that well. While this duo can’t really be counted on for their offense, they keep opponents from generating it too. This pair defends the blue line well and limits scoring chances off those entries. In general, they’re effective at keeping the net-front area and middle of the ice clear. McDonagh does well to retrieve pucks and move them out of danger. And if heavy hockey is a factor in this series, expect these two to be a key part of it. That can make life very difficult for Matthews and Marner, two players that have wilted a bit in previous playoffs.

The massive star-power edge up front and the team’s improved defensive depth are nice things to have for Toronto, but goaltending will no doubt be the biggest x-factor in this series. The existence of Andrei Vasilevskiy casts a massive shadow over Jack Campbell.

The Lightning netminder has saved 16.7 goals above expected this season for his team, earning an impressive 37 quality starts along the way. With a capable backup in Brian Elliot, Tampa Bay has been able to rest their starter enough after two long postseasons, keeping him as fresh as possible for the most crucial time of the year. The team knows just how game-changing Vasilevskiy’s play can be – just look at the 17 goals he saved above expectations last year on his way to the Conn Smyth Trophy. Or, check back to the year prior when he saved 13.7 goals above expected in 42 games.

He’s consistently been one of the league’s best goalies. So it’s no surprise he’s projected to be one of the most valuable goalies in the playoffs, ranking second behind Igor Shesterkin in value added. Vasilevskiy could be The Difference if he maintains his level from the last two playoffs.

At the start of the season, it seemed like Campbell could be the answer himself in between the pipes for Toronto, starting very hot as one of the leaders in goals saved above expected. During the middle of the season, his numbers fell off a cliff though and goaltending was beginning to look like the team’s biggest concern. It still is as only three starters in the playoffs have a lower GSVA. For the year Campbell allowed eight goals more than expected, one of the lower marks in the league.

It was Campbell’s first season with a starter’s workload and it’s likely he crumbled a bit under the volume of starts, hitting a wall halfway through the season. He’s been better since coming back from injury, but the playoffs will be a grind that may be tough for him to handle.

Getting through the first round is the first step though and that means playing close to Vasilevskiy’s level. That’s a tall order and is the likeliest reason for Toronto’s downfall in this series.

The Bottom Line

The Lightning pose a major challenge to the Leafs, but it’s one the team wants and needs. The biggest dragon this team needs to slay lives in their own head. Taking down the two-time champions would do a lot toward extinguishing half a decade of self-doubt that has sabotaged a very talented team from doing anything meaningful when it counts.

Tampa Bay will not make things easy here. Though the Lightning didn’t look as sharp during the season, the playoffs are a whole different story. It’s one this very team has conquered for two straight years, an important edge over a Leafs team that still hasn’t gotten over that first hurdle.

It’s the most compelling series of the opening round: the playoff masters going for their third straight championship, and the students attempting to embody their winning pedigree.

A lot of things suggest this might just be business as usual for both sides. Another deep run for Tampa Bay. Another first-round exit for Toronto. But in the unpredictable NHL playoffs, sometimes the script has to change. Curses can’t last forever, they’re meant to be broken. Is this finally the year for Toronto?

Data via Evolving Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, HockeyViz, Hockey Stat Cards and NHL

(Top photo: Roy K. Miller / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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