NHL Eastern Conference playoffs: Toronto Maple Leafs vs Tampa Bay Lightning series preview and predictions

The NHL playoffs are finally here, and after finishing as the second and third seeds in the Atlantic Division, respectively, the Toronto Maple Leafs will take on the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs. The Leafs finished the season with the fourth-best record in the entire league and will have a home-ice advantage for the first time since 2004. The Lightning finished the season with the eighth-best record and are looking to be the first team in the salary-cap era to win three Stanley Cups in a row. This will be an all-time matchup between the hockey center of the world and the two-time defending cup champions.

This will be one of the most entertaining series. Both teams have extremely skilled forwards with Auston Matthews hitting the 60 goals mark for Toronto, and Steven Stamkos reaching the 100-point plateau for the first time in his career. The pressure is at an all-time high for both teams, let’s break them down and discuss our best bet for the series.

Breaking down the Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs are entering this postseason with the weight of the world on their shoulders. After five consecutive years of being first-round exits, the Leafs have been the most mocked franchise in the league, but it’s time for them to change the narrative. After a sloppy start to the season, the Leafs established themselves as one of the best and most consistent teams in the league. After one of the most embarrassing collapses last season when the Leafs blew a 3-1 lead, Toronto has something to prove.

Offensive talent is what separates the Leafs from the rest of the league. Auston Matthews is the first 60-goal scorer in more than a decade, Mitch Marner averaged a career-high 1.35 points per game, and they had five other players hit 50 or more points this season. Toronto finished the season with the number one powerplay (27.3%) and faceoff percentage (55.1%) — both titles they held for the entire season. They also averaged the second-most goals per game with 3.8.

The defense has been a hot-button topic in Leaf-Land for a number of years, but anybody who has watched the Leafs consistently knows they have one of the deepest defensive cores in the league. Goaltending has been the major concern for the Leafs this season. However, with a healthy and well-rested Jack Campbell, Toronto is hoping to squash that narrative as well. Campbell finished the regular season going 7-0-2 in the month of April with a .915 SVP and 2.59 GAA.

Breaking down the Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning have won the Stanley Cup the last two seasons in a row. They’ve been here, and they’ve done it. They’re battle-tested and have a similar core in terms of their top two lines, defensive players and Conn Smythe winning goaltender, Andrei Vasilevskiy. Despite early injuries to key players in October, Tampa Bay found themselves on an upward trajectory for the entire season and never seemed to waver. They’re built to win, but will they be able to tap into that winning mentality for the third year in a row?

With Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, the Lightning’s top-end forwards are tough to compete with. But their third line of years past has moved on, with all three players getting paydays with other organizations. While the Lightning averaged the seventh-most goals and had the eighth-best powerplay this season, they lack the same offensive depth that won them two Cups. The Lightning had three players that averaged more than a point per game this season.

Tampa Bay ended their season going 7-3-0 in their final 10 games and Andrei Vasilevskiy has won his last four starts in a row. While Vasy isn’t having the best season of his career, he is still one of if not the best goaltender in the league. In a recent player poll that garnered 537 votes, Vasilevskiy received 37.4% of votes for the question, “If you need to win one game, who is the one goalie you would want on your team?” The next closest goaltender received 13.9%.

Toronto Maple Leafs vs Tampa Bay Lightning series prediction: Maple Leafs 4-2

The regular-season series was split 2-2, indicating this series should be a battle. Two of the games were very close, while the other two games were blowouts. But as we know, the playoffs are a different beast. Taking the regular-season meetings with a grain of salt, we think the Leafs have a slight edge in this matchup. The hungry dog runs faster, and after years of disappointment, this is the exact challenge the Leafs need to get over the hump. Pressure simply means you have an opportunity, and this is an opportunity Toronto can’t ignore. To be a great team, you need to learn to win. To say the Leafs have taken their lickings would be an understatement, I’m taking the Maple Leafs -139 to win this series.

The Leafs are entering the playoffs on a three-game winning streak and their players have momentum. In their last regular-season game, Matthews recorded two goals to hit the 60-goal mark, and Campbell recorded a 20-save shutout. Matthews had a quote after 60 goals, “Job’s not done, work’s not finished.” Despite headlining the list of MVPs for the season, he knows this team is built for something bigger and he’s the one who needs to bring them there. While this series is going to be a war, Toronto has more skin in the game and motivation should prove to be the difference in this series.

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