Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Matthews, Keefe, Spezza & Game 1 Lineup

The playoffs start tonight. One of the most interesting of all the playoffs pits the Toronto Maple Leafs against the reigning Stanley Cup champs the Tampa Bay Lightning. Don’t ask disappointed Maple Leafs’ fans to believe until they’re shown, but the fact is that either one of these two teams could win it all. 

Related: 4 Reasons Why This Could Be the Maple Leafs’ Stanley Cup Season

In this edition of Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors, I’ll take a look at the game and who might and might not be able to play. As well, I’ll comment on some of the key factors about the Maple Leafs’ lineup that might help the team carry the series. 

Item One: Congratulations to Auston Matthews 

A hearty congratulations to the Maple Leafs Auston Matthews for winning his second straight Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy for his goal-scoring skills during the 2021-22 regular season. Matthews not only set his own personal career-best, he also broke the Maple Leafs’ franchise record when he scored his 60th goal of the season in the team’s 81st game.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

This is not Matthews’ first Rockey Richard Trophy. He also won last season when he scored 41 goals in 52 games. Incredibly, Matthews has averaged just over 43 goals a season for his six years in the NHL.

Item Two: Sheldon Keefe Looks for a Physical Series

Interestingly, and perhaps I’m reading too much between the lines, but you can tell that Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe believes his team might be more skilled than his first-round opponents. Keefe noted that he expects the Lightning to play a physical game as a way to to neutralize his team’s skill.

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The genesis of Keefe’s comments apparently came after he watched the tactics the Lightning used when they beat the Florida Panthers in six games last May during the 2021 playoffs. 

Sheldon Keefe and Manny Malhotra Toronto Maple Leafs
Sheldon Keefe and Manny Malhotra, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Keefe also noted that his team expected physical play. “We got a taste of it when we were down in Tampa. I have watched them play through their playoff runs. I have rewatched it since. They are a team that is going to be very physical and competitive.” (from “Get ready for the chaos: Lightning-Maple Leafs will provide star power, physicality,” Eduardo A. Encina, Tampa Bay Times, 01/05/2022).

Item Three: Will Jason Spezza Be Sitting in Game 1?

Given Keefe’s comments about the Lightning’s physicality, perhaps it makes yesterday’s practice line combinations make more sense. At first, I found them interesting. In part, because of his successful playoff experience and because of his recent spate of good games over the past couple of weeks, I just expected that Jason Spezza would be part of the fourth line with Colin Blackwell and Wayne Simmonds.

However, Spezza was an extra with these line combinations and defensive pairings reported from yesterday’s practice:

Forward Line Combinations

Alex Kerfoot-Auston Matthews-Mitch Marner 

Ilya Mikheyev-John Tavares-Ondrej Kase 

William Nylander-David Kampf-Pierre Engvall 

Kyle Clifford-Colin Blackwell-Wayne Simmonds 

The extra players were Michael Bunting and Jason Spezza

Defensive Pairings:

Morgan Rielly-Ilya Lyubushkin 

Jake Muzzin-T.J. Brodie 

Mark Giordano-Timothy Liljegren 

The extra players were Rasmus Sandin and Justin Holl

These practice line combinations suggest that Maple Leafs’ fans might:

First, see Ondrej Kase in the lineup tonight. He was reported to be a full participant in practice. If so, it means that Kase is deemed by the medical staff to be fit to play.

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Second, both Michael Bunting and Jason Spezza would be scratched for tonight’s game. Although both practiced in regular jerseys, they did not have regular line positions during the practice. That’s not much of a surprise for Bunting. The hope was that he’d be ready to play, but the reality of his lower-body injury is that it isn’t likely 100 percent.

Third, both Kyle Clifford and Wayne Simmonds might be riding shotgun on whatever physical mischief might be in the wind. That would make sense given Keefe’s comments noted earlier in this post. 

Related: Toronto Maple Leafs’ Nic Petan’s Personal Story of Tragedy and Charity

Fourth, the defensive pairings suggest that Timothy Liljegren would be playing with Mark Giordano. This has been a defensive pairing that’s worked well since Giordano joined the team. It might mean that Justin Holl will not be playing.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

This has the potential to be a high-scoring series; but, as Keefe noted, it will probably also be a very physical one. However, it should also be interesting to watch to see which team’s offense can establish itself. 

Matthews scored a hat trick in his team’s 6-2 win over the Lightning on April 4 in Florida. He also scored 60 goals on the season. That’s the exact number of goals the Lighting’s Steven Stamkos scored exactly ten seasons ago in 2011-12. Matthews finished the season with 106 points, which was exactly the same number Stamkos scored after a huge end-of-the-season push.

Both teams have highly-skilled players. It could be fun, or it could be heart-breaking.

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