2022 NHL playoff preview: Maple Leafs vs. Lightning

2022 NHL playoff preview: Maple Leafs vs. Lightning

The Maple Leafs simply submit their ultimate season in franchise historical past, incomes 54 wins and 115 aspects. They have been a regular-season powerhouse that confirmed they belong inside the league’s higher echelon, completing fourth within the standings.

Their praise? The 2-time protecting Stanley Cup champions. After all.

It most likely doesn’t topic who Toronto performs as the actual season starts. The Leafs misplaced after they have been heavy underdogs to Washington and Boston. They misplaced after they have been neck-and-neck with Boston. They usually misplaced after they have been heavy favorites towards Columbus and Montreal. It doesn’t topic who’s at the different aspect for the reason that Leafs’ largest enemy is themselves.

The chances don’t topic.

They’re a mirrored image of an unsentient type that doesn’t know anything else instead of how smartly the Leafs have performed over the previous couple of steady seasons. Are the Leafs cursed? The type does now not know. Do they understand how to win when it counts? The type does now not know. Do the Lightning be able to turn the transfer now that the playoffs are right here? The type does now not know.

And so, like a naive kid, it thinks that this time, issues will likely be other. The type is clearly now not a Leafs fan, or biased towards the Leafs – as a result of a Leafs fan would know higher. It’s the hope that kills you and the type is lately suffocating on it.

No, that’s now not a typo. In line with The Fashion, the protecting Stanley Cup champions are considerable underdogs on this collection – one thing now not even their measurement benefit fixes. If the playoffs in point of fact are a special beast and sure groups simply understand how to win, then this type of likelihood is simply downright egregious… proper?

Each season is a brand spanking new one and although we use priors to assist tell what to anticipate, the newest season will at all times hang essentially the most weight. And within the yr 2022, the Leafs have been a greater staff than the Lightning. Particular groups, even power, peak finish skill, intensity, you title it – the threshold is going to Toronto. The Leafs ultimate avid gamers were given higher whilst the Lightning’s regressed, all whilst dropping key skill within the offseason. The Leafs must be appreciated, they completed smartly forward of the Lightning in spite of everything.

That bears out within the numbers under, however through this a lot in contrast staff feels virtually masochistic. The Lightning are a staff that is aware of win, and lift their video games when it counts. That’s a daunting proposition from a modeling point of view when simplest regular-season stats are thought to be and that’s most probably the place the distance lies.

Perhaps that is the yr for the Leafs to in any case step forward – and it was once just a few years in the past the place Tampa Bay was once in a identical boat. You’re now not a winner till you win and that’s a worthy attention on the subject of “knowing how to win.”

The 6th time’s the appeal, however as soon as Tampa Bay flips the transfer, it’s tricky to look the distance between those two golf equipment be as giant because the type makes it out to be.

A key distinction between the Lightning and Maple Leafs that influences that hole is each and every staff’s offense. Toronto’s been a top-five staff around the board. Whilst their shot and high quality likelihood technology has slipped slightly today, it’s now not noticeable at the scoresheet with their completing taking issues up a notch. The extra practical expectation is nearer to their season-wide accomplishments as opposed to this remaining month of play, however both means, this can be a staff in an excellent place to do a little harm this postseason.

Tampa Bay, however, is in a tier under offensively. That can appear unexpected given probably the most elite avid gamers they have got up entrance. A few of their season-wide numbers are influenced through participant absences to start out the season – maximum significantly Brayden Level and Nikita Kucherov. Whilst they stayed afloat, developments under the skin have been extra indicative of the way they have been in fact acting.

Defensively, the matchup is shut. Those are two groups carefully matched within the photographs and high quality probabilities they enable towards. Lately, Toronto’s been the easier staff in suppressing offense. However with out as a lot balance in internet, it doesn’t at all times appear that means at the scoresheet which will mitigate Toronto’s offensive edge.

So why are the Leafs such heavy favorites? Let’s get started on the very peak with what’s arguably now the league’s ultimate duo: Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.

No participant, skater or goalie has a better projected GSVA than Matthews at 6.8 wins. He’s rated that top, the best this type has ever rated any participant, as a result of he’s performed round or above that point in two directly seasons, doing a large number of issues the type loves: ranking numerous targets and affect play at each ends of the ice. Matthews has now scored at a 65-goal tempo or upper in back-to-back seasons placing his projected target overall at 61.6 over 82 video games. To be a real skill 50-goal scorer is improbable on this league, however over 60 targets is a wholly new point. As a way to be counted to attain that constantly is a particularly particular present and is the most important reason why Matthews is so precious.

He’s additionally a power at each ends of the ice. For the season Matthews posted a surprising 64 % anticipated targets charge, the fourth-highest mark within the analytics technology. Controlling play at that point is obscene and is what makes Matthews so difficult to prevent. When he’s at the ice it’s closely tilted towards the offensive zone. And if he’s within the offensive zone, there’s a superb opportunity he’s scoring.

Matthews doesn’t function by myself although and the presence of Marner is clearly a large plus. It’s imaginable neither participant may just succeed in their present heights with out the opposite, however that’s now not an actual concern after they do have each and every different. The chemistry between the 2 is sensational with Marner’s elite play-making skill serving to Matthews succeed in such improbable goal-scoring heights. Each can be elite in their very own proper, however this transcendent point they’ve proven this yr is a testomony to how a lot the duo elevates each and every different.

Now… can they do it within the playoffs? That’s the massive query right here, one who neither will be capable to break out till they in fact do it. Matthews was once the most efficient participant within the league this season and Marner wasn’t some distance at the back of – they want to display they are able to be that once the video games topic maximum or it’ll all be for not anything.

That’s one thing the Lightning’s big name avid gamers realized forward in their back-to-back championships. Now their peak avid gamers face a special roughly drive: surpassing what they’ve already completed.

Going into this collection, Kucherov tasks to be essentially the most precious of Tampa Bay’s forwards value 4.1 wins. This time, he has an everyday season below his belt and shouldn’t face probably the most similar problems he did remaining yr looking to get again into sport form as soon as the postseason was once already underway.

Kucherov neglected a bit of time previous this season, so his scoring doesn’t somewhat fit as much as probably the most league’s ultimate. But if accounting for mins performed, he slides proper into the highest 3 within the league with 4.38 aspects in step with 60 in all scenarios. That’s the second-best of his occupation, simplest to a exceptional 128-point 2018-19 season. He’s a weapon at the persistent play together with his capturing accuracy and sneaky just right puck motion to arrange the likes of Steven Stamkos with a royal street cross. That holds true at five-on-five, the place he’s one of the sure influences at the staff’s offense. Few can generate photographs off the cycle like Kucherov can. The world of weak spot, then again, is his play again in his personal zone. And towards a staff with as a lot firepower because the Maple Leafs, that would simply burn them if trainer Jon Cooper opts for a power-versus-power matchup.

Every other scoring risk on that prime line is Stamkos, who hit the 100-point mark for the primary time in his occupation with 42 targets and 64 assists. He ended the steady season with a hat trick over the Islanders that prolonged his level streak to 11 video games with 26 aspects. The Lightning are patently hoping that parlays right into a postseason run very similar to remaining yr, the place he had 18 aspects in 23 video games.

The Lightning earned 61 % of the targets with Stamkos at the ice this yr because of his offensive output and 53 % of the predicted targets. Stamkos can problem defenders together with his deadly shot – which Kucherov’s passing can lift – or he can set his teammates up as smartly. That makes having this pair at the similar line all of the more difficult for defenders, because it’s difficult to wait for how a play will expand between those two. Ondrej Palat’s no pushover both, although now not on the point of his linemates; he’s a key facilitator who shouldn’t be lost sight of.

In contrast to the Maple Leafs, there aren’t two elite skills on the second one line. This is reserved just for Brayden Level, who hasn’t even been his standard game-breaking self this season. That, after all, may just trade over the following couple of weeks – if somebody rises to the instance when it issues maximum, it’s Level. He’s the engine of this staff. The Lightning middle is elite in transition together with his explosive skating.

The rationale Level’s worth is so low is that the Lightning simply weren’t as dominant as you’d be expecting with him at the ice. They earned simply 51 % of the particular and anticipated targets and his 58 aspects in 66 video games simplest equate to a 72-point tempo. At five-on-five, his 1.88 points-per-60 was once his lowest in 5 seasons – and that was once with a sky-high 11.4 % on-ice capturing proportion. He simply wasn’t as concerned within the offense as standard.

Tampa Bay has 3 star-level forwards, however in step with the type the Leafs have 5 which is tied with Colorado for the league lead. Matthews and Marner aren’t arguable in that regard and few would argue towards John Tavares or William Nylander both, either one of whom have been as regards to being point-per-game avid gamers. That moment dynamic duo makes Toronto’s offense this type of large risk and if the highest two traces are clicking on the similar time that’ll be a large drawback for the Lightning.

The place there’s most probably competition is placing Michael Bunting in the similar class – with a projected GSVA upper than Level! That’s now not one thing both folks consider, however Bunting is the actual deal at the peak line. He’s now not the rationale it’s arguably the league’s ultimate, however he’s crucial cog within the gadget. Bunting’s inflated worth clearly stems from enjoying with Matthews and Marner which has resulted in a three.16 points-per-60 at five-on-five (8th within the league) and a 61 % anticipated targets charge. The type sees that and thinks “star” and although it adjusts his worth for taking part in with two superstars, it is probably not sufficient.

Toronto’s peak line earned two-thirds of the particular and anticipated targets this season, at the back of simplest two traces led through Patrice Bergeron. Sadly for Toronto, the Leafs will have to look how a lot worth Bunting in fact brings to the fold making an allowance for he is probably not to be had for the beginning of the collection.

Will the Maple Leafs’ dynamic duo upward thrust to the instance within the postseason? (Winslow Townson / USA These days)

The Lightning’s supporting solid is full of professional avid gamers. Anthony Cirelli’s evolved right into a shutdown middle worthy of Selke attention and is likely one of the Lightning’s ultimate forecheckers. Palat and Alex Killorn had been part of this core for years. However a few of their performances have fallen wanting years previous. May that vary when the stakes upward thrust? Tampa Bay must hope so since they’re going up towards this type of deep staff.

Cirelli will likely be an important participant to observe on this collection for his shutdown prowess. If Kucherov and Stamkos can’t be relied on towards Toronto’s peak line in an influence vs. persistent surroundings, it’ll be as much as Cirelli to be a thorn of their aspect, similar to Phillip Danault remaining yr. Cirelli is greater than able to that, but it surely’ll be a question of whether or not he has the considered necessary assist for this type of problem. And whilst Cirelli and the 3rd line can assist mitigate issues in their very own zone, discovering offence could be a problem. That 3rd line has had little or no scoring success, however generates a excessive charge of photographs and doesn’t permit an excessive amount of again. That latter phase would be the key.

The Lightning have a excessive amount of excellent avid gamers and it offers them a lot of choices for the precise lineup combine. The query is whether or not they are able to to find that blend briefly on this collection if the present set-up doesn’t click on. Regardless, it’s now not sufficient to triumph over Toronto’s top-end edge. And to Toronto’s credit score, the Leafs have some forged avid gamers within the supporting solid too.

On protection is the place issues get in point of fact attention-grabbing. With each groups matching up flippantly in worth it’ll be a query of whether or not the most powerful or weakest hyperlink prevails.

If it’s the most powerful, Tampa Bay having Victor Hedman goes to be a large storyline. It’s no wonder he’s essentially the most precious defenseman on this matchup at a projected 3.6 wins. Hedman can do all of it, in all scenarios, on the maximum the most important moments of the sport. He’s already proven the remainder of the league how he can command a chain – even whilst scuffling with harm like he did remaining yr, or on his option to the Conn Smyth Trophy in 2020. Now he’s coming off a perfect steady season and goes to get put to the take a look at towards probably the most peak forwards within the league. After a so-so 2021 marketing campaign the place he was once harm through accidents, Hedman’s on-ice numbers got here roaring again this yr as he posted a 54 % anticipated targets charge and 57 % of the particular targets. We’ll see if he can stay that up towards Toronto’s puck ownership sport.

The Leafs have a positive primary in Morgan Rielly themselves – he’s simply now not Hedman. Rielly is extremely dynamic with the puck and probably the most league’s ultimate puck-movers, however he has his warts defensively. It appears like he steadily will get underrated for this reason although and what he brings to the desk on offense greater than makes up for what he offers again the opposite direction. Having a gentle presence on his proper aspect no doubt is helping too and Ilya Lyubushkin has stuffed that function positive.

That’s allowed for some attention-grabbing ‘second’ and ‘third’ pairings, phrases that can be utilized loosely with the Leafs making an allowance for how sturdy the remainder of the protection grades out. It’s right here the place Toronto in point of fact shines in now not simply this collection, however relative to the league. From one-to-six it’s exhausting to discover a protection corps as deep as Toronto’s – and that doesn’t even come with a “fourth” pair that includes Rasmus Sandin and Justin Holl, either one of whom additionally grade out smartly.

Toronto, for the primary time in a very long time, does now not have a susceptible hyperlink on its backend and that may be an enormous benefit on this collection. Jake Muzzin and TJ Brodie make a good shutdown pair that’s on par with Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak in worth. Neither has performed as much as their standard requirements this yr, however they have got the skill to show issues round enjoying in combination.

The crown jewel although could be the lightning in a bottle Toronto discovered with its 3rd pair that includes time limit acquisition Mark Giordano and rookie Timothy Liljegren. Giordano has been as nice as marketed posting a 61 % anticipated targets charge with the Leafs and has been an incredible mentor to Liljegren, the analytics darling. He has probably the most best anticipated targets charges within the league and has discovered nice chemistry with Giordano. It’s the most efficient “third” pair within the league, and one the staff can really feel at ease enjoying towards somebody. That’s a luxurious the Leafs have by no means in point of fact been afforded.

That aforementioned shutdown pair of McDonagh and Cernak have a tendency to take at the hardest matchups for the Lightning, liberating Hedman up relatively. And the 2 have a tendency to regulate that smartly. Whilst this duo can’t in point of fact be counted on for his or her offense, they preserve fighters from producing it too. This pair defends the blue line smartly and bounds scoring probabilities off the ones entries. Normally, they’re efficient at protecting the net-front house and heart of the ice transparent. McDonagh does smartly to retrieve pucks and transfer them out of risk. And if heavy hockey is an element on this collection, be expecting those two to be a key a part of it. That may make lifestyles very tricky for Matthews and Marner, two avid gamers that experience wilted slightly in earlier playoffs.

The large star-power edge up entrance and the staff’s advanced defensive intensity are great issues to have for Toronto, however goaltending will surely be the most important x-factor on this collection. The lifestyles of Andrei Vasilevskiy casts a large shadow over Jack Campbell.

The Lightning netminder has stored 16.7 targets above anticipated this season for his staff, incomes an outstanding 37 high quality begins alongside the best way. With a succesful backup in Brian Elliot, Tampa Bay has been ready to leisure their starter sufficient after two lengthy postseasons, protecting him as contemporary as imaginable for essentially the most the most important time of the yr. The staff is aware of simply how game-changing Vasilevskiy’s play will also be – simply have a look at the 17 targets he stored above expectancies remaining yr on his option to the Conn Smyth Trophy. Or, test again to the yr prior when he stored 13.7 targets above anticipated in 42 video games.

He’s constantly been probably the most league’s ultimate goalies. So it’s no wonder he’s projected to be one of the precious goalies within the playoffs, score moment at the back of Igor Shesterkin in worth added. Vasilevskiy might be The Distinction if he maintains his point from the remaining two playoffs.

Initially of the season, it appeared like Campbell might be the solution himself in between the pipes for Toronto, beginning extremely popular as probably the most leaders in targets stored above anticipated. Right through the center of the season, his numbers fell off a cliff although and goaltending was once starting to appear to be the staff’s largest fear. It nonetheless is as simplest 3 starters within the playoffs have a decrease GSVA. For the yr Campbell allowed 8 targets greater than anticipated, probably the most decrease marks within the league.

It was once Campbell’s first season with a starter’s workload and it’s most probably he crumbled slightly below the quantity of begins, hitting a wall midway in the course of the season. He’s been higher since getting back from harm, however the playoffs will likely be a grind that can be difficult for him to care for.

Getting in the course of the first around is step one although and that implies enjoying as regards to Vasilevskiy’s point. That’s a tall order and is the likeliest reason why for Toronto’s downfall on this collection.

The Backside Line

The Lightning pose a big problem to the Leafs, but it surely’s one the staff want and desires. The most important dragon this staff must slay lives in their very own head. Taking down the two-time champions would do so much towards extinguishing part a decade of self-doubt that has sabotaged an excessively proficient staff from doing anything else significant when it counts.

Tampa Bay is not going to make issues simple right here. Regardless that the Lightning didn’t glance as sharp throughout the season, the playoffs are a complete other tale. It’s one this very staff has conquered for 2 directly years, crucial edge over a Leafs staff that also hasn’t gotten over that first hurdle.

It’s essentially the most compelling collection of the outlet around: the playoff masters going for his or her 3rd directly championship, and the scholars making an attempt to include their successful pedigree.

Numerous issues recommend this would possibly simply be industry as standard for either side. Every other deep run for Tampa Bay. Every other first-round go out for Toronto. However within the unpredictable NHL playoffs, once in a while the script has to switch. Curses can’t remaining eternally, they’re supposed to be damaged. Is that this in any case the yr for Toronto?

Knowledge by way of Evolving Hockey, Herbal Stat Trick, HockeyViz, Hockey Stat Playing cards and NHL

(Most sensible picture: Roy Ok. Miller / Icon Sportswire by way of Getty Photographs)

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