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

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

Lightning have some concerns as playoffs approach

The Tampa Bay Lightning have been the NHL’s elite team for the better part of the past eight seasons. Since the start of the 2014-15 season no team has won more regular season games (379) or playoff games (70, which is nearly double the next closest team), while they have reached at least the Conference Final in five of the previous seven seasons, including three Stanley Cup Finals.

This season they are chasing history in trying to become the first team since the early 1980s New York Islanders to win three consecutive Stanley Cups.

For much of the season they looked like a team that was perfectly capable of doing that, even after losing some key contributors to the past two championship teams (the entire third line of Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde, and Barclay Goodrow; Tyler Johnson).

They even found a way to go all in at the trade deadline again by adding Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul to their forward group.

On paper they are still an imposing team that has the potential to go on a run and win it all once again. But there are some concerns starting to rise to the surface as the playoffs get close.

Let’s start with the fact that over the past month-and-a-half they are only 9-10-2 overall, with only one of those wins (a 4-3 overtime win against Carolina) coming against a playoff team. Even worse, since the start of March they are just 1-9-1 against other playoff teams, continuing what has been a season-long struggle against other contenders. They have only won 15 of their 37 games against playoff teams for the season, with only nine of those wins coming in regulation. That is significantly worse than their performance over the past two years against similar opponents.

So what is happening this season, and especially lately.

Andrei Vasilevskiy looks human instead of superhuman

You can talk about Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, or Victor Hedman all you want, but Vasilevskiy is the cog that makes this machine run. He is the best goalie in the world, and it is almost unfair to put a player like him behind a team like this. He would make any team a contender the second he shows up.

When he is at his best he makes the Lightning an absolute powerhouse.

He has been, for the most part, very good this season. But “very good” for Vasilevskiy is a step below what we are used to seeing from him. Since the start of January his performance has been even further below his normal level.

Since the start of the calendar year Vasillevskiy has managed only a .907 save percentage in his 35 appearances, which is very uncharacteristic for him. His all situations save percentage ranks 22nd in the league among the 38 goalies with at least 25 appearances during that stretch.

Part of it could be the normal volatility we see from goalies. They can run hot and cold for different stretches (or seasons) and nobody is immune to that.

It could also be the result of his workload over the past couple of years. Vasilevskiy has played a LOT of hockey since the start of the 2019-20 season, appearing in 201 regular season and playoff games. He also played every minute of Tampa Bay’s past two playoff runs, never getting a night off and never being removed early from a game. The next closest goalie in terms of workload over that stretch? Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyk who has appeared in 179 games. After that, it is Calgary’s Jacob Markstrom at 161 games. There is nobody even close to Vasilevskiy in terms of workload the past three seasons.

The Lightning have not really had a dependable backup to give Vasilevskiy much time off, and when combined with his overall brilliance it makes it difficult to take him out of the lineup. But eventually he needs a break, and we might be starting to see the impact of all of that playing time right now. Can he be expected to maintain his play over another extended playoff run without much of a break?

Brandon Hagel is not Blake Coleman

What really separated the Lightning from everybody else the past two years was having a third dominant line that could swing games in their favor. The trio of Coleman, Gourde, and Goodrow was — by far — the best third line in the league and posted truly dominant numbers together across the board. They outscored teams 37-20 (regular season and playoffs) and were close to 60 percent in their shares of shot attempts, expected goals, and scoring chances during 5-on-5 play.

All three of those players left this offseason. Coleman to Calgary in free agency, Goodrow in a trade to the New York Rangers, and Gourde to Seattle in the expansion draft. That is a significant part of their team to replace, and while they have found some solid replacements (Corey Perry has been great; Ross Colton is very good) they have not really found a trio that can do what the previous line did.

When the Lightning acquired Hagel from Chicago at the trade deadline there was an obvious comparison to Coleman. Under contract for a couple years on a cheap deal, good goal numbers this season, and even a comparable trade price. If we are being honest, though, that is where the comparisons end. When the Lightning acquired Coleman he was a much more proven player, a better possession driver, and a superior defensive players. A lot of Hagel’s value in Chicago this season was tied to a (probably unsustainable) 22 percent shooting percentage. The risk for any acquiring team was what value he could provide when that shooting percentage leveled off.

So far Hagel is playing just around 12 minutes a game for the Lightning, scoring just three goals (one empty netter) with zero assists. Lately he has been playing on a line with Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn, a trio that looks good on paper and should be good in theory, but has not yet produced much in the way of meaningful results.

This is still a very deep group of forwards, but they have definitely lost over the past year and have not fully replaced it.

None of this is to say the Lightning are doomed in the playoffs or are going to be an easy out. Doubt them at your own peril. Their recent track record speaks for itself, and the talent level on this team is still among the best in the league. There is also nothing to say that Vasilevskiy can not get hot, or that everything starts to click for them again at any moment. But Vasilevskiy’s struggles, the downgrade on the third line, and the rise of several other teams in the Eastern Conference (Florida, for example) does make them look a little more questionable than they have been the past couple of years.

NHL Rink Wrap: Avalanche clinch West; Kings win, Golden Knights lose

Saturday’s top NHL players

Mike Smith, Oilers

Look at the final score (4-0 for the Oilers), and you might charge the Golden Knights with a no-show in a big game.

While the Golden Knights certainly wished they would’ve produced, Mike Smith played a significant role in the Oilers locking up two more points. The veteran goalie pitched a 39-save shutout, his second goose egg of an up-and-down season.

After this shutout, Mike Smith’s save percentage climbed to .911 this season, just a shade under his career average of .912.

Nikita Kucherov/Victor Hedman, Lightning

At one point, the Jets held a 4-2 lead over the Lightning. Tampa Bay ended up winning (wait for it) 7-4. Yeah.

No big surprise here, but Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman played a big part in that win. Kucherov collected two goals and two assists, pushing his season total to 51 points in 40 games. Kucherov’s two points away from reaching 600 points, leaving him comfortably above the per-game mark (598 points in 555 career games).

With four assists, Victor Hedman reached 72 points in 75 games this season. One more, and he’ll set a new career-high. He’s been overshadowed by even more explosive defensemen in 2021-22, yet it’s worth noting that his underlying stats are improved from last year’s relative struggles.

Judging by his career xSPAR (expected standings points above replacement) chart from Evolving Hockey, this might not just be a rebound season for Victor Hedman. This could be, in some ways, his best year yet:

Stunningly, Cale Makar‘s xSPAR is above 10 this season. (via Evolving Hockey)

Anthony Mantha/Dmitry Orlov, Capitals

Like Kucherov and Hedman, the Capitals created a lot of offense thanks to four-point games for a forward (Anthony Mantha) and a defenseman (Dmitry Orlov).

Mantha, like Kucherov, got there with two goals and two assists. This leaves Mantha with 21 points in 30 games this season. If Mantha can give the Capitals more scoring balance, then … well, the East is already ridiculously loaded? Why not just keep pouring it on?

With a goal and three assists, Orlov’s set a new career-high with 34 points in 69 games this season. His previous career-high was 33 points, set in 2016-17.

Johnny Gaudreau/Matthew Tkachuk, Flames

Hey, yet another duo of teammates scoring four points. Both Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk scored two goals and two assists as the Flames left the Coyotes in ashes. Just another day at the office?

Saturday NHL highlights

Brayden Schenn scored in overtime to help the Blues clinch a playoff spot:

Alexis Lafrenière made a tremendous, video game deke button-style move to score this backhand goal in a Rangers win:

Matty Beniers, second pick of the 2021 NHL Draft, scored his first NHL goal:

The Capitals scored a ton during Saturday’s NHL action, and this Evgeny Kuznetsov assist to Alex Ovechkin was probably the most tantalizing tally:

Not far removed from NCAA competition, Ben Meyers scored his first NHL goal in a high-scoring Hurricanes – Avalanche game.

Saturday NHL Takeaways

Blues, Flames, Bruins clinch playoff spots; Avalanche clinch top spot in the West

In the grand scheme of things, the final Western Conference playoff spots are the only ones really in doubt. Other than that, playoff pushes are mainly about positioning.

Still, if teams fear counting chickens until they hatch, then a few eggs crackled around the NHL on Saturday.

  • It wasn’t the biggest story in the Oilers beating the Golden Knights, but that Vegas loss confirmed that the Calgary Flames clinched a playoff spot.
  • By beating the Wild in OT, the Blues clinched their playoff spot.
  • After squeezing by the Penguins, the Bruins also clinched a playoff spot during Saturday’s NHL games.
  • Finally, the Avalanche are your Western Conference champions. The only scenario where they wouldn’t own home-ice advantage in any series is a) if it’s the 2022 Stanley Cup Final and b) if the Panthers wrestled the Presidents’ Trophy from the Avalanche. Catch up on a recent Presidents’ Trophy race breakdown here.

Kings widen lead over Golden Knights in key West playoff race

The Golden Knights had a chance to gain an edge on the Kings in the race for the third spot in the Pacific Division. (Increasingly, that’s looking like Vegas’ main route to a playoff spot, period.)

Things were looking better than they had in a while for the Golden Knights compared to the Kings heading into the NHL action on Saturday. That flipped again with the latest results.

First, the Oilers beat the Golden Knights 4-0. Then, the Blue Jackets put up a decent fight vs. the Kings, but Los Angeles won in regulation.

With that, the Kings now have a three-point standings advantage (90 to 87) over the Golden Knights. The Golden Knights aren’t out of it, mind you, as they have a game in hand (six games remaining for Vegas, five left for the Kings).

The Kings and Golden Knights don’t face each other again in the regular season, so this final stretch comes down to a mixture of winning their own games, and doing some scoreboard watching. During the NHL games on Saturday, both of those elements went the way of L.A.

Rangers – Hurricanes battle for Metro title is very much alive

Following the NHL games on Saturday, the Rangers and Hurricanes are now tied at 104 standings points, each with six games remaining on their schedules. While the Hurricanes hold the advantage in regulation/overtime wins (47 to 45), the Rangers have a real chance to win the Metropolitan Division title.

Your mileage may vary regarding how important it is to seek given matchups. There’s room for the Penguins and Capitals to jostle for position, with one ending up the Metro’s third seed, and another grabbing a wild-card spot. The Bruins could sputter and fall to the second instead of the first wild card.

With the Panthers looking almost certain to take the top spot in the East, the Metropolitan Division champ would draw the higher wild-card team. Right now, that would be the Bruins. Not an easy task.

But beyond the natural drive to compete, winning the division means locking down at least two rounds of home-ice advantage. While both the Rangers and Hurricanes travel well (New York’s only won one more game at home [25] than on the road [24]), that’s not a bad thing to chase.

Side note: the Hurricanes have to hope that Frederik Andersen avoids a significant injury. He looked shaken up when he left Saturday’s loss to Colorado.

More on how the NHLPA handled Kyle Beach’s allegations toward Brad Aldrich

You can read up on the NHLPA investigation here, but it’s worth watching this segment from Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman.

Tough injury news for Penguins (Jarry) and Canucks (Horvat)

Dropping a game to the Bruins may not have been the biggest bummer for the Penguins. Coach Mike Sullivan announced that Tristan Jarry is out week-to-week with a lower-body injury. Week-to-week definitely leaves things cloudy for Jarry’s playoff availability, possibly leaving net duties to Casey DeSmith.

Honestly, it’s tough to imagine the Canucks actually remaining in the mix, but Bo Horvat‘s also expected to miss at least two weeks.

A big story for Sunday

Panthers aim for 10 in a row, and to stay close to Avalanche in Presidents’ Trophy race

It’s interesting, really, that this season’s developing a “rich get richer” theme. (At least, in hockey terms, it’s all based on merit.)

That thought often gravitates toward individual performances. Connor McDavid, Roman Josi, Cale Makar, Auston Matthews, Igor Shesterkin, and plenty of other superstars are putting up bonkers, sometimes-historic numbers.

The absolute best teams are fitting with that theme, too. Some might look at the Eastern Conference’s eight playoff sets being all but set for a while now as one sign. But it’s also extreme with the best of the best.

With their ninth consecutive win, the Avalanche overpowered a strong Hurricanes team. The Blues are on an eight-game winning streak, while the Maple Leafs are 8-1-1 in their last 10. The Oilers might just be knocking on that elite door, having gone 8-1-1 in their last 10 games, too.

So maybe that’s why the Panthers’ powerful run must compete for the limelight. Going into Sunday, the Panthers are on a nine-game winning streak. They’ll be strong favorites to beat the Red Wings for a 10th in a row, especially since Detroit played on Saturday.

If the Panthers extend that winning streak to 10 games, they’ll remain two points behind the Avalanche for the Presidents’ Trophy. The upper-crust of the NHL truly look like the undisputed elite.

Saturday NHL scores

Bruins 2, Penguins 1
Rangers 4, Red Wings 0
Predators 4, Blackhawks 3
Blues 6, Wild 5 (OT)
Oilers 4, Golden Knights 0
Sabres 4, Flyers 3
Capitals 8, Canadiens 4
Maple Leafs 5, Senators 4 (OT)
Lightning 7, Jets 4
Stars 2, Sharks 1
Avalanche 7, Hurricanes 4
Flames 9, Coyotes 1
Kraken 4, Devils 3 (SO)
Kings 2, Blue Jackets 1

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Two-time Cup champion Lightning facing rare bit of adversity

Steven Stamkos notices a different feeling around the Tampa Bay Lightning.

For a team accustomed to winning — not only the Stanley Cup the past two years but in the regular season at a high level — it has been a challenging few weeks. The back-to-back defending champions have lost nine of their last 15 games, with three separate three-game skids handing them the kind of adversity they have not experienced in quite some time.

“It feels like every mistake right now is kind of ending up in the back of our net, so it’s tough not to get frustrated,” Stamkos said Wednesday night after a 4-3 loss at Washington. “We just have to continue to work our way through it. We have a lot of veteran leadership on this team that we know we can work our way out of it.”

The bigger question is whether the Lightning can harness the right lessons from the past month and apply them when the playoffs begin in early May. After coaching Tampa Bay on several long runs, missing the postseason entirely, enduring a stunning first-round sweep and then hoisting the Cup twice, Jon Cooper understands the answer won’t be clear until after the regular season.

“We can only wait and see if it’s going to help or not, but it tests you mentally and physically,” Cooper said. “The boys have played a lot of hockey over the last couple years. And especially these last two months, we’ve asked a lot of them. Sometimes it becomes a little bit more than just the physical part of it.”

There has been some roster turnover, but many core players are now 70 games into another regular season after almost 50 over the past two playoffs combined. No team has played more hockey since August 2020 than the Lightning.

With that comes fatigue but also the perspective of what the regular season means in the grand scheme of trying to win a championship. Players now have a good grip of that.

“There’s some uncomfortable moments for this group, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” Stamkos said. “You want to try to work out the kinks as you go towards the playoffs. At the end of the day, that’s where teams are judged, right? You could have the best regular season in history, like we’ve shown, and it means nothing come playoff time.”

Winning the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team in 2018-19 and setting a record for the most points accumulated did little for the Lightning when they were swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. That group faced so little adversity until the playoffs that it lacked the ability to handle it.

The experience of that series undoubtedly played some role in Tampa Bay winning it all the past two years. But it’s not like players are simply writing off their recent performances thinking they can flip a switch against Florida, Carolina or Boston when the playoffs start.

“You always want to win games, and when it doesn’t go your way, maybe you’re second-guessing decisions on the ice and we don’t have time for that,” said defenseman Victor Hedman, who was playoff MVP in 2020. “We want to go out there and execute and be clear in our minds in what we want to do. And when we’re clicking on all cylinders, we know we’re a tough team to beat. So for us it’s all about going out there with the confidence that we’re going to win games.”

The immediate challenge is a visit from the Bruins on Friday night. The Lightning’s loss at the Capitals dropped them into a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, and while there are no easy matchups, it’s not a spot they want to be in without home-ice advantage.

Cooper called it a “pivotal” game, and a few more like it stand in the way before Tampa Bay can even try for the three-peat.

“The boys got to dig in here,” he said.

Fun police here! You can’t do that Kucherov!

Kucherov is no stranger to creativity in hockey games. He’s well-regarded as one of the most creative players in the league, a wizard with the puck on his tape and a mastermind of the mental aspects of hockey. That quick-thinking and innovation is best evidenced by his famous “no shot” goals he’s routinely put on display during breakaways, penalty shots, and shootouts. His first “no shot” goal came in a shootout on March 4, 2017 against the Buffalo Sabres. Kucherov won the Lightning the game by totally deking Sabres’ netminder Robin Lehner. Since then, Kucherov’s “no shot” shot has made appearances during multiple games as well as All-Star Weekend. He’s even got former Capitals’ goalie Braden Holtby twice with the same move during his career.

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Back to the moment from last night’s game though. Clearly, it was a stroke of genius from Kucherov! Only problem, it had been done before, by guess who? Mr. Roger Neilson!

Back in the day, the mad genius Neilson had the brilliant idea to have his goaltender leave his stick behind across the length of the goal when coming off the ice for an extra attacker. The thought behind this action is probably what you’d imagine it to be: if a puck lazily floats toward the goal, the stick will stop the puck from entering, deflect the puck away, and keep the team in the game.

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The NHL didn’t take too kindly to this obvious breach of the game’s integrity so they added a snippet to Section 9 of the NHL rulebook. Rule 67.5 states “When a goalkeeper, prior to proceeding to his players’ bench to be replaced by an extra attacker, intentionally leaves his stick or other piece of equipment, piles snow or other obstacles at or near his net that, in the opinion of the Referee, would tend to prevent the puck from entering the net, a goal shall be awarded.” In all fairness, the rule never states that a non-goalie can’t leave equipment in front of the net, so maybe Kucherov was onto something.

Unfortunately for us, we never got to see the officials’ interpretation of this rule because the Lightning rushed into the offensive zone and forced a stoppage of play just moments later. Furthermore, it’s likely that the glove was removed from the crease immediately after Kucherov placed it there. We can see in the video that the referee starts skating in the direction of the glove after Kucherov takes off toward the Washington zone. We never see whether or not it was picked up, but we can assume the referee simply picked it up and set it outside of the playing area.

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Even though we didn’t get to see the rule play out, it was fun to see Kucherov try to pull a fast one on the officials. You just know that Neilson was looking down and smiling when Kucherov did that. Neilson is in the hockey Hall of Fame for a reason. He was a “builder,” a true innovator of the game. Without him, the NHL we know today would look very different, and who knows, maybe the referee would’ve left the glove in the crease last night. Perhaps a puck would have come across that glove later in the game and ricocheted away from the net. That would’ve sent Capitals’ fans into a frenzy. Thanks to Neilson, we’ll never have to endure that.