2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Maple Leafs vs. Lightning Preview


(Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)

By: Thomas Gotzamanis


The calendars have flipped to May and you know what that means; playoff hockey has finally arrived. The Maple Leafs, who are hosting the series, are coming off a franchise-best 115 point regular season. Their opponent will be the defending back-to-back Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning are looking to become the first team to win three straight championships since the New York Islanders from the 1980s while the Maple Leafs are looking to snap their 18-year-long first round and 53-year-long Stanley Cup droughts.


But how do each of these teams stack against each other heading into this derby? That’s what we’re here to do. We’ll be breaking down each position and aspect of both teams and see who really has the edge heading into this first round series.


Goaltending


Edge: Tampa Bay Lightning


While Jack Campbell is a very serviceable goalie and has shown some flashes of brilliance throughout his career in Toronto, he just isn’t on the same level as Andrei Vasilevskiy. The former Vezina winner has showcased his ability to put his team on his back through their previous playoff runs, and has shown much more consistency behind the pipes this season over Campbell. Even if Campbell returns to his elite form that we’ve seen from him through some of his time in Toronto, it’s very hard to give Toronto the edge at goaltender over Tampa Bay.


Defense


Edge: Tampa Bay Lightning


While Toronto did improve their defense with trade deadline pickups in Mark Giordano and Ilya Lyubushkin, it’s still just not as good as Tampa Bay’s defensive core that contains the likes of former Norris and Conn Smyth winner Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev and Ryan McDonagh. Hedman, who’s coming off a career-year for points (85), led a defensive unit that ranked sixth in goals allowed (2.78) and seventh in shots on goal allowed (29.8). While Toronto has been much more consistent on defense ever since they brought in their pickups, we’ll have to give Tampa Bay the edge here.


Offense


Edge: Toronto Maple Leafs


While Tampa Bay is a very good team offensively, containing the likes of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, Toronto’s goal-scoring ability is just on another level. Auston Matthews took the league by storm this season, scoring a league-leading 60 goals in just 73 games. Paired up with Mitch Marner, they have become one of the most unstoppable duos in the NHL. Not to mention captain John Tavares and William Nylander coming off impressive seasons as well on that second line; this offense is just plain terrifying. They ranked only second to Florida in goals scored per game (3.8).


Special Teams


Edge: Toronto Maple Leafs


Tampa Bay does have a very serviceable power play unit, but Toronto’s was the best in the entire league this season. Scoring on 27.3% of their power plays, they were on another level. Tampa Bay ranks 11th in penalty kill percentage (80.6%) and Toronto ranks eighth (82.1%). But if there’s one thing we’ve learned, especially after Tampa Bay’s last Stanley Cup run, it’s that special teams can make or break your playoff run. For Tampa Bay last season, it was one of the biggest factors in why they won the Stanley Cup. Maybe the same can be said for Toronto in these playoffs?


Depth


Edge: Toronto Maple Leafs


This is where Tampa Bay’s squad lacks thoroughly compared to last season. The team lost considerable depth due to the expansion draft and cap concerns, and Toronto’s third and fourth lines just stack up better in this series against Tampa Bay. Alexander Kerfoot, Ondrej Kase, Ilya Mikheyev and Jason Spezza headline these third and fourth lines. Kerfoot, in particular, is coming off an impressive season where he totalled 51 points. Not to mention Toronto’s defensive depth is also slightly better than Tampa Bay, especially after the additions of Ilya Lybushkin and Mark Giordano.


Coaching


Edge: Tampa Bay Lighting


While Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe has made good progress through his three seasons in Toronto during the regular season, leading his team to a franchise-record 115 points this season, he’s still yet to find that playoff success the team has been vying for. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper has already cemented himself as one of the brightest minds in hockey behind the bench. Leading his team to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, he has already surpassed John Tortorrela as the winningest coach in franchise history.


Series Prediction


Winner: Toronto Maple Leafs in Seven


Here’s where it’s just my opinion. While this series can easily go either way, I feel like this is the season Toronto finally gets over the hump and wins their first playoff series since 2004. Toronto is coming off of their best regular season ever, and I know that the regular season means nothing come playoff time, but this season feels different. Auston Matthews has been on another level, Mitch Marner is playing like one of the best playmakers in hockey and the team looks much more balanced since the trade deadline. The only way this team can really be held back is by their goaltending. If Jack Campbell plays like how he did earlier this year and last season, then I see no way Toronto loses. But if he’s the Jack Campbell we saw throughout the middle parts of the season that struggled heavily, then the Maple Leafs may be in trouble.


But no matter what happens, this series is set up to be one of the must-watch series’ of this first round.