4 big reasons Maple Leafs could lose to Lightning


A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep. Is it Monday yet?

1. The Toronto Maple LeafsTampa Bay Lightning series — positioned as the showcase matchup of Round 1 — will be analyzed, scrutinized, and dissected to death over the next 48 hours.

Two speedy, superb offences unleashing wizards on the power play. Two underrated defence cores that should battle hard and smart but will have their hands full.

If you’re the Maple Leafs (or a fan), four major things should concern you here:

• Andrei Vasilevskiy: So rare is the true Number 1 netminder in today’s NHL that Vasilevskiy — winner of eight consecutive playoff series, impeccable in elimination games — is a blazing comet shooting through a sea of dimly lit stars.

That the Big Cat enters the postseason on a four-game win streak and that counterpart Jack Campbell has only seven games total of postseason experience.

“He’s been playing great since he came back from injury,” Wayne Simmonds says. “He’s made the big stop when he’s needed to, shut down teams, and allowed us to play our game.”

Campbell must match the best.

• Depth: “I’m a firm believer that a lot of series are won and lost on the depth guys,” Simmonds says.

He’s not wrong.

No one can question the Leafs’ top end these days. It’s the aging and/or unproven bottom of the lineup that will need to raise its game.

Sure, the Lightning lost its valuable Gourde-Coleman-Goodrow unit, but Nick Paul (16 goals), Brandon Hagel (25 goals) and Ross Colton (22 goals) aren’t too shabby.

• Coaching: Sheldon Keefe has done a fantastic job in regular seasons. Frankly, he should get more credit for his work (but such is the fate of all coaches blessed with talented athletes).

What Keefe has not done — yet — is outsmart the guy on the other bench when it really matters. Despite being in the higher seed in chess matches with John Tortorella and Dominique Ducharme, Keefe hasn’t adapted well enough to win in the playoffs.

Jon Cooper, the NHL’s longest-tenured bench boss, is a master motivator who knows how to rouse a dressing room and play the podium.

He’ll be a challenge, too.

• Intimidation: The Lightning rank fourth in hits; the Leafs rank 24th. Tampa ranks 22nd in blocked shots; Toronto ranks 29th.

The champs will be physical — very physical — out of the gate. Corey Perry and Pat Maroon will try to agitate and bully. They’ll be relentless. How the Maple Leafs respond to the grind will be critical.

“I think it’s about initiating rather than retaliating, to be quite honest,” Simmonds says.

“We want to be the first team to jump in and go full bore, whether that be hits, grinding it out, smothering our opponent.”

2. If Gary Bettman’s parity dream lives anywhere, it’s in on the Hart Trophy.

Not since Alex Ovechkin went back-to-back in 2008 and 2009 has the NHL crowed a repeat MVP. In the 13 seasons since, 12 different players have captured the award.

Only Connor McDavid (2017 and 2021) has won it twice in that span. A unanimous champ last season, he’ll be in tough to win this year — despite crushing the scoring race with 123 points. That’s the highest total a player has racked up in 29 years (Mark Recchi hit that number in 1992-93 but needed 84 games to do it).

With all due respect to Johnny Gaudreau, Roman Josi, Jonathan Huberdeau, Igor Shesterkin, Kirill Kaprizov, Steven Stamkos, Cale Makar, Leon Draisaitl, and so on, I’m staring at my ballot and seeing a two-horse race between McDavid and Matthews.

I asked Huberdeau whom he’d pick.

“It’s a good question,” the Panthers star replied. “Matthews is having a great year, so I would probably give it to him. He’s special. I had a chance to play in the all-star game with him. You give him the puck, he’s going to score every time. Not a lot of guys can get close to 60 goals.”

Other than himself, who would Matthews select if he had a say?

“There’s so many guys to choose from. It’s tough. But obviously [Huberdeau] would be one of the guys. It just seems like he’s been driving the bus for [Florida] along with a couple other guys. He really stands out,” Matthews considers.

“You look at a guy like Josi in Nashville who’s just been unbelievable — kind of the same thing, just driving the bus for that team. So, I think there’s a lot of guys that you can kind of look at and pick.

“You know, it seems like McDavid and Draisaitl, we’ve gotten so accustomed to them just doing this every single year that you kind of lose sight of how good of a season those two are having.”

This is the hardest choice and will be the narrowest vote since Taylor Hall edged out Nathan MacKinnon in 2018.

3. The Leafs-Lightning series will feature the NHL’s past two 60-goal scorers, each coming in hot of their first 100-point campaigns.

Here are Matthews’ 60 goals, by type:

Wrist shot – 28

Backhander – 9

Snap shot – 8

Tip – 7

Slap shot – 6

Wraparound – 2

He accomplished the feat with a 17.2 shooting percentage, 1.93 goals per 60 (1st), 44 even-strength goals (first), 348 shots (first), 16 power-play goals (third), 10 game-winning goals (fifth), four empty-netters, and pinging 13 posts/crossbars (third).

Here are Stamkos’ 60 goals in 2011-12, by type:

Wrist shot – 32

Slap shot – 8

Snap shot – 8

Tip – 6

Backhander – 5

Wraparound – 1

Stamkos had a higher shooting percentage (19..8), more game-winners (12), fewer power-play goals (12), and fewer empty-netters (two). He also appeared in all 82 games, nine more than Matthews.

When we spoke with Stamkos about that magical season, he said he was most proud of his 48 even-strength goals, particularly as a player once pegged as a bit of a power-play specialist.

That season, Evgeni Malkin was a distant second in even-strength goals, with 38.

Matthews’ 44 at evens this season is the closest anyone has come to Stamkos since, and you have to trace all the way back to Alexander Mogilny’s 49 ESG in 1992-93 to find the last sniper to hit that mark.

4. A sly news dump by the National Hockey League Players’ Association, revealing its search for a new union chief around 9 p.m. ET Friday amid a hectic final night of the regular season, with media preoccupied with playoff matchups.

The PA’s executive board voted in favour of forming a search committee to hire executive director Donald Fehr’s successor. Ian Cole, Zach Hyman, Justin Faulk, Sam Gagner, Kyle Okposo, Nate Schmidt and Kevin Shattenkirk will lead the job search.

Fehr guided the players through two intense rounds of collective bargaining, striking agreements with commissioner Gary Bettman in 2013 and 2020.

“Don’s been tremendous. Great communicator. The PA has been very organized and has been through some tough times with negotiations. Those are hard,” says Jason Spezza.

The veteran has picked up on the challenge of getting new players to wrap their heads around the history and complexities of the owner-player relationship.

“I think it’s hard,” Spezza continues. “As the league is getting younger, there’s less and less guys that have been through the labour disputes. So, I think Don and his team have done a great job. The executive committee decided on transition plan to figure something out, and I think that’s good. I think the PA is in good order right now.

“We’ll find the right person to run things and leave the game in good shape, but I think hockey is in great shape in general. We want to just keep building forward.”

5. Fun with numbers.

The NHL’s first-round matchups, but with the teams’ final ranking by points percentage in brackets:

Florida (1) vs. Washington (13)

Carolina (3) vs. Boston (10)

Toronto (4) vs. Tampa Bay (8)

New York (7) vs. Pittsburgh (12)

Colorado (2) vs. Nashville (16)

Calgary (6) vs. Dallas (15)

Minnesota (5) vs. St. Louis (9)

Edmonton (11) vs. Los Angeles (14)

My take: The 11th-place Oilers are the biggest winners here. Not only are they the only team outside the NHL’s top seven with home-ice advantage, they’ve drawn the third-weakest opponent in the tournament. A reward for playing in the thinnest division.

The eighth-place Lightning have the greatest grievance, drawing four-seed Toronto. A punishment for being located close to the Atlantic Ocean.

6. In these troubled times, it’s imperative we rely on our diligent researchers for important information.

Thankfully, the folks at Time2Play.com crunched the data to discover which NHL fan base consumes the most alcoholic beverages at the good ol’ hockey game.

According to the site’s survey, Maple Leafs fans guzzle an average of 3.9 beers on game nights — tops in the league. Chicago, Tampa, Colorado, and Arizona round out the top five, while New York Rangers fans (1.8) are the most responsible.

Full results:

7. Just because Ben Chiarot was rented from worst to first doesn’t mean the Florida Panthers defenceman severed all ties with the Montreal Canadiens.

When hearing Carey Price was finally ready to make his comeback a couple weeks ago, Chiarot made sure to compose a text message.

“I told him I wish I could be there for him, be out there with him,” Chiarot says. “The last couple of years we grew a nice bond there, the defence and him. We had a good unit going on.

“So happy to see him back. And he’s such an important player to that city, that franchise. Important for the league, really. He’s such a big name, especially as a goaltender. So, it was great to see him back.”

Price finished second, to Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, in the goalie category for the 2022 NHLPA Player Poll:

8. Considering he is too hurt to take the ice, Alex Ovechkin managed to have himself a big night Friday.

First, the Great 8 got name-dropped in Drake’s hot 16 on Future’s brand-new “I’m On One”: I’m just all about my goals like Ovechkin, what / I’m just all about my goals like I’m Messi.

Then the injured captain had no issue trolling Rangers fans from the Madison Square Garden press box. Looks like a guy who will be in Washington’s Game 1 lineup:

9. Mitch Marner (97 points) finished painfully close to the century mark, and came this close to joining Darryl Sittler, Doug Gilmour and Matthews as the only Maple Leafs to record 100 points in a season.

Because Marner was healthy scratched for Friday’s season finale, and missed another nine games to injury, Sheldon Keefe softened the blow by rounding up. In the coach’s mind, Marner is already a 100-point man.

Over a full 82, Marner’s point-per-game rate translates to a 110-point campaign.

Record books don’t tend to include projections or estimates, though.

“It’s definitely tough,” admitted Marner, who could’ve taken a run at three points against a thin Bruins team in Game 82.

“At the same time, I want to just make sure I’m ready to go [for playoffs]. Talking with our team here, we got a pretty good awareness of how this year’s been and how it’s, obviously, hard on everyone’s body. We all discussed that, and we thought it was a good idea to rest and make sure we do the right stuff before the real thing starts.”

10. An eagle-eye pickup by Maple Leafs video coordinator Jordan Bean and coordinator Sam Kim Sunday in Washington.

The duo caught a John Carlson hand pass in Toronto zone that led to a goal much later in the shift. The illegal hand pass was missed by the officials, the broadcast, and the Leafs bench.

By correctly challenging the goal, Toronto had a chance to (a) tie a close game, then (b) win it in a shootout.

Essentially, it was a two-point catch that would help the Leafs secure home-ice advantage in the playoffs:

“We didn’t see it at all. Nobody on our bench was talking about it. Credit to those guys. Beaner is on the ball with these things,” Keefe says.

“Honestly, it seems like there’s a hundred things a game that they pick up on — it just doesn’t always result in a goal. They may be cheering for us to get scored on in some of these instances, so they can shine. It was a great job. They communicated it well, they were on the ball and were very clear that we should challenge that.”

You just know a coach’s challenge or four is about to sway a playoff game.

11. Another lost season in Buffalo went out on a high note at least.

The team won five of its final six, watched the Golden Knights miss the dance, and got to hear goaltender Malcolm Subban belt out “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Friday’s home game.

“At first, I heard he was going to record it, so I was pretty impressed when he stepped up and did it live. And I don’t have the balls to do that. That was extremely impressive,” teammate Casey Mittelstadt told reporters. “He’s good! I did not expect that.”

12. Eight playoff predictions in eight words or less.

Florida over Washington in six: Capitals need goaltending more than Cats need Ekblad.

Boston over Carolina in seven: William Jennings Trophy winners’ health is concerning.

Toronto over Tampa Bay in seven: They can, and they will.

New York over Pittsburgh in five: Taking the team with a No. 1 goalie.

Colorado over Nashville in five: Two home gates for Predators at least.

Calgary over Dallas in five: Stars have a negative goal differential.

St. Louis over Minnesota in six: Blues’ experience and centre depth prevails.

Edmonton over Los Angeles in five: No Drew Doughty spells trouble.

Leave a Reply