As the Tampa Bay Lightning enter the final days of the 2021-22 season, they appear to be back to Stanley Cup contending form. For about a 20-game stretch, the defending champions looked human, leading many to speculate that they were no longer a true threat to win their third straight Cup. However, since posting a 5-0 shutout against the Buffalo Sabres on Apr. 10th, the Lightning have rattled off a record of 7-2-0, where they outscored their opponents 45 to 20.
With their scoring, defense, and goaltending back on track, the Lightning are, once again, a monster living under the NHL’s bed. Sure they are easy to ignore as the third-seeded team in the Atlantic Division, and there’s a good chance that won’t even make it out of the first round given the level of their opponent, but there’s also a real possibility that they are ready to swallow the league whole.
Lightning Face an Elite Opponent in Maple Leafs
Now, this isn’t to say that the Lightning won’t be facing an incredible foe in Round 1. As things stand right now, they will meet the Toronto Maple Leafs in the postseason for the first time in franchise history. For their part, the Maple Leafs look like a team of destiny in their own right, as they are putting together one of the best seasons best in their storied franchise’s history, and are led by, arguably, the best player in the world in Auston Matthews.
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The previous meetings between these two teams were a story of extremes, as the Maple Leafs won 6-2 on Apr. 4th, where the Lightning won 8-1 on Apr 21st. In their respective wins, the victor looked dominant, whereas the loser seemed completely hopeless on the ice. While there could be a storyline to draw off of these games, they likely won’t represent their postseason series in any way. Ultimately, the play we saw on Game 76 of the regular season won’t be an indicator of Game 1.
On paper, this matchup will be extremely tight, but the Maple Leafs have the edge statistically in many categories. They lead the Lightning in goals for (307 to 277), powerplay percentage (27.2% conversion to 23.5%), penalty kill percentage (82.4% conversion to 81.0%), shots per game (34.7 to 30.9), and faceoff win percentage (55.1 to 50.3). The Lightning also take significantly more penalties than Toronto (298 minor penalties taken to 258), meaning they will have to play smarter hockey to keep one of the NHL’s top power-play units off the ice.
However, while the Maple Leafs are the better team on paper and have home-ice advantage over the Lightning, that doesn’t mean they will be favored heading into the playoffs. In many ways, they are reminiscent of Tampa Bay prior to their 2020 Stanley Cup Championship, since they were a great team no one believed could get past their prior demons.
Of course, those narratives fell away quickly once the Lightning won it all. Now, they are used as the model of consistency where Toronto has taken up that mantle of the perennial choker. It’s a difficult mantle to wear, as the conversation surrounding their play on the ice will always be started and ended with well-founded doubts.
Lightning Will Find Its Greatest Challenge Yet Against Maple Leafs
Assuming nothing drastic changes over the final games of the regular season, when the Lightning take the ice at Scotiabank Arena for Game 1 of the 2022 Playoffs, they will be viewed as favorites to win the series. This may not be fair to the season that the Maple Leafs had in 2021-22, but it is the reality of the trajectory of these franchises over the previous few seasons.
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For the Lightning, this confidence is deserved. The franchise retooled itself after two successful postseasons and is just as dangerous in 2022 as they were in 2020 and 2021. Given the talent lost and trades made over the last ten months, that is an incredible feat that points to a winning culture built on the back of star talent on the ice and a special coaching staff led by Jon Cooper off it.
This isn’t a guarantee that the Lightning will win the Stanley Cup again, however, let alone get past Toronto in Round 1. Part of what makes hockey such an engaging sport is how the unexpected will happen. All that can be guaranteed is that this will be a truly exciting matchup that the sport is lucky to have.
All statistics are taken from NHL.com/stats.