Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Tampa Bay Lightning Series Preview: Can the Leafs Finally Get Over the Hump?

NHL handicapper Jason Yamaguchi offers his prediction for the first-round matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
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Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Tampa Bay Lightning Series Preview: Can the Leafs Finally Get Over the Hump?

With the NHL playoffs starting on Monday, the field has been winnowed down to 16. Eight first-round matchups await us, including a few that are sure to provide, tightly contested series. The showdown between two of the league's best teams—the Lightning and the Maple Leafs—is arguably the most enticing matchup of them all. Let's take a look at how these two teams measure up.

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Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Tampa Bay Lightning Series Preview

Before we fully dive in, it's worth noting that this matchup, by all accounts, should not be taking place in the first round. Toronto had the third-most points in the Eastern Conference with 115, while Tampa Bay tied for fourth with 110. If not for the NHL's ill-conceived playoff format under which the second and third-best teams in each division must face each other in round one, teams of this caliber would only be able to meet in the later rounds. The league would do well to return to the 1v8 seeded playoff format that preserved these type of heavyweight matchups for the second and third rounds.

This will be a narrative-defining series for Toronto, a team that, entering these playoffs, has more pressure on them than any other. After a regular season in which they set a franchise record with 115 points, the Maple Leafs are looking to win their first playoff series in 18 years, a drought characterized by four game-seven losses. This is no easy task, given that they've drawn a team set to compete for their third straight championship. Can Toronto do it? Sure. Will they? I have my doubts.

Injury Concerns

In the NHL playoffs, health can be a key factor in determining which team moves on to the next round. As such, it's highly concerning that Toronto is already banged-up before the first-round has even begun. Top-line winger and likely Calder finalist Michael Bunting has been out with a lower-body injury, and his status for game one is up in the air. Defenseman Rasmus Sandin has been on injured reserve since March with a knee injury. Jake Muzzin is nursing an undisclosed injury; he is likely to play in this series from the start, but not at full strength.

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay is entering this series with a fully healthy roster. Defenseman Jan Rutta is the only starter to have recently missed time, but his absence was likely precautionary. Tampa's health advantage could pay dividends due to the fact that they are already a bit deeper than Toronto at forward. For instance, Ross Colton and Nick Paul are two forwards who stepped up when the play of Tampa's stars dwindled at points during the season. Given that the Leafs are struggling with multiple injuries, we can expect the Bolts to draw increasingly favorable matchups up and down the lineup, compounding their health advantage.

Massive Goaltending Advantage

The biggest factor in Tampa Bay's favor is their edge in goal. Andrei Vasilevskiy has enjoyed another stellar season, posting a .917 save percentage in a year where scoring was elevated across the NHL. Vasilevskiy saved 28.4 goals above expected, a mark that ranks second in the league. He did appear to struggle in spots, but his track record over Tampa's last two playoff runs suggests that he is as dependable as they come when the playoffs roll around. Last year, he saved 26.6 goals above expected in 23 playoff games en route to a Conn Smythe and a Cup. That is over 1 GSAx per game, which is... unheard of. If he returns to that type of form, the Leafs are not winning this series.

On the other side, Jack Campbell will be the starter for Toronto. Campbell had a lackluster regular season; he allowed 2.3 more goals than expected, which ranks 21st amongst all starters. Ideally, the Maple Leafs would be able to win the series without heavily leaning on their goaltender. That just doesn't seem like a probable outcome against a team that scored the seventh-most goals per game in the league this season.

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A Battle of Superstar Talent Up Front

The narrative surrounding the Maple Leafs this season has revolved around Auston Matthews, and rightfully so. He posted 60 goals and added 46 assists over the course of a 73-game campaign that will likely net him his first Hart Trophy for league MVP. His defensive play also took a step forward. However, none of that will matter if he cannot produce in the postseason and lead the Leafs to a series win. Last year's first-round loss to the Canadiens, in which Matthews recorded just one goal (and none over the last five games), is worthy of contemplation.

Mitch Marner also enjoyed a fantastic 2021-22 season, grabbing 97 points over 72 games. But, just as Matthews' ability to produce in the playoffs will remain under heavy scrutiny, the pressure is on Marner to reverse the narrative about his tendency to shrink when the games matter most. He has recorded just 10 points in his last 18 playoff games, with zero goals. The media will write ad nauseam about Toronto's depth scoring (or lack thereof), but their fate in the playoffs may, once again, come down to whether or not their stars can come through.

On the other hand, there is zero doubt that Tampa Bay's star forwards are built for the postseason. Brayden Point has developed a well-deserved reputation for being a playoff dynamo—he has posted 36 goals and 37 assists in 73 career playoff games. Nikita Kucherov has recorded 66 points over 48 playoff games in the last two years. Steven Stamkos only played in one of Tampa's two cup runs in the last two years, but he has had perhaps the best season of his career, a 106 point campaign that largely flew under the radar. He also enters the playoffs in electric form, having logged 26 points(!) in his last nine games.

Final Thoughts

The Maple Leafs have most of the requisite components to beat a powerhouse like the Lightning. They are among the league's best teams in terms of play at even strength, and have also excelled on special teams. That being said, their weakness in goal and an increasingly long injury list gives me pause—Tampa Bay should be slightly favored here. My model had Tampa Bay one spot above Toronto in its power ratings, and I'm sticking with that analysis. Bet the defending champs down to -110 to win this series.

Toronto Maple Leafs vs Tampa Bay Lightning Pick

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Jason Yamaguchi is an avid New York sports fan. He has a proven record of providing +EV bets by combining traditional handicapping tactics with advanced statistics. You can follow him on Twitter @TopMoneyPicks to view all of his bets, including NFL, NHL, and MLB picks.

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