Is anyone outside of Central Florida picking the Tampa Bay Lightning to defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs in the much-anticipated first-round rematch to begin the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs? It doesn’t appear that many people are giving them a chance to win the series. According to professional hockey analysts, the media and fans, Tampa will be lucky to avoid a sweep.
Although this seems a little unfair to the Lightning, who has represented the Eastern Conference for three consecutive seasons, the team might actually benefit by playing the underdog role like they did last season when most counted them out at the beginning of each postseason series.
The Rematch: Lightning vs. Maple Leafs 2.0
This time last year, the Maple Leafs finished second in the Atlantic Division and the Lightning were right behind them as the third-seeded team in the division. Tampa was the underdog going into the postseason. At the end of the 2022-23 regular season, they find themselves again trailing their northern foes in the standings. They lost two of the three regular-season games, of which two were decided by one goal, and scored eight goals vs. Toronto’s 11. The two teams have known for months that they would playing in the much-anticipated rematch.
During their seven-game, first-round series last season, the contest was close. The Maple Leafs barely won the goal differential, 24 to 23 and their power play was kept to only 14.3 percent. The Lightning won two road games, which included Nick Paul’s two Game 7 goals that sent their fans home again extremely disappointed. In that series, they were close to elimination and came back to win two consecutive games that no one thought they could pull off.
“In the Toronto series when we were down, 3-2 and there were no tomorrows,” Cooper said, “they gave us two more months of tomorrows.” (from ‘A Three-Peat in Sight, Tampa Bay May Face Its Toughest Test Yet,’ New York Times, June 15, 2022)
Why the Maple Leafs Are Favored to Win Series
The Maple Leafs are the clear favorite to win the 2023 first-round series. What has increased the Maple Leafs’ chances to win the series are the players that general manager (GM) Kyle Dubas brought in at the trade deadline. With the addition of three solid centermen in Ryan O’Reilly, Noel Acciari and Sam Lafferty, they also beefed up their blue line by adding Jake McCabe, Erik Gustafsson and former Lightning Luke Schenn. They have been built to be favored in the playoffs.
Adam Proteau of The Hockey News predicted Toronto would win in six games. DraftKings Nation has the Lightning as underdogs at plus-130 and Toronto winning in six games. The pressure for Toronto to win is far greater than it is for Tampa. They can fly under the radar, similar to last postseason, and quietly find themselves in the Cup Final again.
“The Lightning aren’t about to roll over for Toronto, but this year’s Leafs have shown they can play a low-risk, defense-minded game and beat Tampa Bay; the Leafs went 2-0-1 against the Bolts in this regular season, so Toronto knows it can succeed over an older, creakier Lightning squad.”Adam Proteau
Why the Lightning Can Win as Underdogs
It seems as though the Lightning’s previous Stanley Cup success is barely considered when discussing the first-round matchup even though they had won 11 consecutive postseason series until losing to the Colorado Avalanche in the 2022 Cup Final.
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What’s worse is that SiriusXM NHL Network’s “The Power Play with Steve Kouleas,” along with guests Mike McKenna and Bruce Boudreau, didn’t even list goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy among the league’s top five goalies. However, with a .923 career playoff save percentage (SV%) and six series-clinching shutouts, it is impossible to ignore the future Hall of Fame goalie.
The Lightning’s power play is still producing at 25.4 percent. It is led by Nikita Kucherov, whose 113 points was the second-most of his career, and placed him tied for third in the NHL. As the set-up man, he assisted on 83 goals this season, only six behind Connor McDavid, who led the league.
Playoff Hockey at Its Best
Although no one can deny that the Lightning haven’t looked as dominate this season as they have in recent memory, they still broke some fantastic individual records. For example, Steven Stamkos recorded his 500th goal, his 1,000th point and played in his 1,000th game all during the 2022-23 season. In addition, Brayden Point quietly passed the 50-goal plateau and Brandon Hagel emerged with a 30-goal season. As impressive as this is, the postseason begins a new chapter and the players need to use their underrated regular-season performance as fodder going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Lightning have won three Stanley Cups since the Maple Leafs got out of the first round of the postseason in 2004. However, that’s considered ancient history as the older Lightning team now play the underdog role. The one thing that seems clear is that this will be a highly entertaining series in which one of these two teams will be going home early.