Another season, another playoff berth and another opportunity for the Toronto Maple Leafs to snap their now eighteen-year streak of not winning a playoff series. Their reward for having the best season in franchise history and finishing with the fourth-best record in the NHL is to play the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions in round one. Of course, it would not ever be easy for the Leafs to get out of round one, but it certainly makes things more challenging when you look at how strong Tampa Bay is. Nonetheless, Leaf fans should be excited, not disappointed to have the chance to topple a potential dynasty and possibly begin one of their own.
Tampa’s regular-season strategy seemingly changed after their record-breaking sixty-win season in 2018-19. Their subsequent sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets showed them that beyond qualifying for the playoffs, the regular season does not really matter. They have not won their division in the three years since that embarrassing playoff exit, but they have won two cups and are now going for a third. This makes it practically pointless to analyze their regular season numbers coming into the playoffs because the team just plays differently in the playoffs. This is a team with playoff performers throughout the lineup. Players that raise their game to a new level when they need to. It is painfully cliche to say, but they continue to prove that it is true.
The Bolts are fully healthy this time around and look potentially as strong as ever. Steven Stamkos had arguably the best season of his career at age 32 and Victor Hedman bounced back quickly from a slight down year by his standards last year. The club is hoping that deadline additions Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel can replace what they lost in Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman and it is easy to see why. There is no reason to believe Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point won’t continue to play like absolute monsters in the playoffs. We have not even talked about Andrei Vasilevsky yet. All of this is to say that this is the best team the Leafs have played in the first round of the playoffs since Auston Matthews got here. But, if the Leafs can get by the Lightning, it is a clear sign that they are on their way to something special.
To make it abundantly clear, Toronto’s season was nothing short of brilliant. League-wide, the team finished the year third offensively in expected goals and seventh defensively in expected goals against. They rebounded from their awful start (it is easy to forget that the Leafs started 2-5) and quickly began to show that they would be tough to beat with above-average goaltending. This leads us to the first and biggest question surrounding the Leafs’ playoff chances, will the goaltending sink them or keep them afloat? Let’s dive a bit deeper into the numbers to try and come up with an answer.
It is evident to anyone interested in the Toronto-Tampa series that the Lightning has the edge in goaltending. Andrei Vasilevsky has had another stellar season, ranking second in Goals Saved Above Expected and eighth in goals above replacement amongst goalies. Combine this with the fact that his game has somehow improved in the playoffs recently (.927 and .937 save percentages in Lightning cup runs), and the gap between him and Jack Campbell widens even more. But if there is one thing you should know about Jack Campbell, it’s that you shouldn’t ever count him out.
Campbell’s season started just as strongly as he finished the 20-21 campaign and managed to make the All-Star game. However, his play began to fall off a cliff once the new year hit and things looked bleak, with the Leafs even looking to acquire a goalie at the trade deadline. That did not happen and Campbell took a much-needed break to heal his body and came back after a month off looking rejuvenated. He started nine games in April, winning seven and losing twice in overtime. He saved 32 of 34 shots against Tampa in a Leafs win in early April and 37 of 39 against the Flyers in his best performance since December. He has looked more comfortable with each passing game and signs of his 2021 form are appearing. He does not have to be better than Vasilevsky for the Leafs to win, but he cannot be demonstrably worse. Campbell’s only playoff experience is the seven games against the Canadiens last year in which he played phenomenally, finishing with a .934 SV %.
Matthews, Marner, Nylander:
After goaltending, the next biggest factor for the Leafs in winning this series is the play of their three young stars. The playoff careers of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander have been inconsistent, to say the least. There have been series where Matthews has been dominant. The 18-19 series against the Bruins comes to mind specifically. But, he has also been a non-factor too many times in the biggest games (zero goals in the Leafs’ last four win or go-home games). Marner realistically has not ever had a series where he looked as good as he did in the regular season and before last season’s exceptional performance against the Habs, the same could be said about William Nylander. However, if there was ever a year for the narrative to change, it would be this year. All three players are coming off the best seasons of their careers and they know they are running out of chances to win together.
The Leafs’ depth is impressive; every player in their top nine scored at least ten times this season. But in the playoffs, you win with your stars leading the way. The Lightning certainly know that and they will be putting their best players in the best positions to succeed, Sheldon Keefe needs to do the same. There is nothing to be holding back now. Every opportunity you have to put out Matthews, Marner and Nylander together, you should do it. Give these players the chance to do what the organization has trusted them to do for six years now. If, after everything they have done this season, they still cannot manage to break through, even just a little bit, you’ll know what you have to do.
Personally, I have no doubts that Auston Matthews will continue to play at an MVP-calibre level and that Marner will be right there with him. Nor do I doubt that Nylander will show once again why he is a player that you stick with no matter how much he frustrates you at times. These are the three players, along with Morgan Rielly, that have all of the scars of the past five years. No one else on this roster has continually failed when you most do not want to fail like these four have. That has to mean something, all of the collapses and failures have to mould you into something better. There is just no way that it does not happen for them eventually and this year has to be the year it happens.
This season has been by far the most fun I have had as a Leaf fan in my years, cheering for this forsaken team. Finally watching Matthews turn into what we all knew he could be has been amazing. Getting to watch so many players from the Toronto-area play for their hometown team and not only play but succeed has been incredible. Tuning in every night knowing that something spectacular was probably going to happen was a joy to watch. As we head into the playoffs, I am trying to keep a level head and just enjoy the ride. Although I know once the Leafs lose game one I will be as reactionary as ever. Because of how much fun I have had, as I have said all year, my hope remains that this year will be different from the rest.
Tampa is a brutal team to draw in the first round, but again, it was never going to be easy anyway. According to Bet365, the Leafs are favourites in this series! (Not an ad). Leaf fans should be nervous, undoubtedly, you would not be a Leaf fan if you weren’t. But we should all also be feverishly anticipating a deep run. There is potential here for this to be a really magical couple of months, and if you are okay with the risk of potentially getting hurt, you could find yourself on the trip of a lifetime.
Now to make a prediction. The Leafs come out of the gates on fire, absolutely juiced by playing in front of a playoff crowd for the first time in three years and take the first two games of the series at home. They head to Tampa and lose the next two and things seem to be dejabluing yet again. But unlike the 18-19 series against Boston, the Leafs build off a pivotal game five wins and end the series in Tampa to advance to the second round for the first time since 2004. Matthews the series MVP, obviously.
Here’s a little playoff hype to get those final juices flowing before puck drop:
All stats from Hockey-Reference, Evolving Hockey, Moneypuck and Natural Stat Trick