Maple Leafs Better Equipped for Playoff Rematch vs Lightning

The NHL trade deadline has come and gone and now the focus shifts to the postseason. For the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s the first time where they made a number of high-end deals that showed that they’re all-in, much like the Colorado Avalanche last season.  

For some time, we’ve known who the Maple Leafs opponent is going to be, as they look to get revenge against the Tampa Bay Lightning after last year’s first round loss. While they had a better result and showed more compete, it was another early exit as that loss still lingers for the team. 

However, with the moves that they made at the deadline, the Maple Leafs are destined to be on the right side this time around. By bringing in Ryan O’Reilly, Noel Acciari, Jake McCabe, Sam Lafferty and Luke Schenn at the deadline, they’re showing that they’re not going to be an easy out. 

Toronto Maple Leafs Celebrate
Toronto Maple Leafs Celebrate (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The new additions are going to provide a significant impact, but it’ll be a boost to the Maple Leafs lineup as they get ready for another matchup with the Lightning. If this is the season where they win a series, here’s why that might be the case.

Offense Primed to do Damage Again

There isn’t any doubt the Maple Leafs are one of the top offensive teams in the league. They’re in the top-10 in goals for per game with 3.38 and are fourth in five-on-five goals for percentage with 56.57. Though when it came to the playoffs there were concerns how one or multiple players of the core would go cold during the playoffs as we saw in the series against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Montreal Canadiens. 

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The consistency showed up last season as Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly and John Tavares all made an impact at critical moments during their series with the Lightning. All five players were top-five in team scoring respectively with Matthews leading with four goals and nine points during the series. With extra motivation behind them from general manager Kyle Dubas to run it back and make the moves that he did, shows the confidence he has in his group. 

“It’s a two-way street,” Matthews said according the Star’s Bruce Arthur. “We recognize the confidence and faith he has in us, and for us, we want to back him up and prove him right.” (from, ‘The Leafs’ stars have their supporting cast. Now it’s time to get the show started’, The Star – 02/28/23)

Related: Maple Leafs’ McCabe Addition Already Paying Off on Blue Line

We saw the best version of the Maple Leafs when they went up against the then back-to-back Stanley Cup Champs last season. They proved that they were able to solve the best goaltender in Andrei Vasilevskiy as they outscored the Lightning at even strength 18-15 while also scoring three goals or more in six of the seven games. That series showed that the Maple Leafs’ top players can rise to the occasion and lead the way. 

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The top players are still scoring this season. Auston Matthews is still on-pace to possibly hit 40 goals and is having an impact in other aspects of the game. William Nylander is once again having a dynamic season as he’s on-pace for a 40-goal, 90-point season. John Tavares is two goals shy of his sixth 30-goal season and he’s become a fixture in front of the net on the power play. Mitch Marner is once again becoming a versatile threat as he attempts to close in on 30 goals again. The goal scoring is more balanced and spread out as they have the skill to get it done against the Lightning and beyond. 

With the struggles the Lightning have faced recently, including the benching of their star players, you still shouldn’t take them lightly as they can still hurt you offensively. The Maple Leafs have managed to still put goals up against them and have come out on top, they just need to find a way to close out a series.

Competitive Bottom-6

The one advantage the Lightning had against the Maple Leafs was their bottom-six and how competitive and impactful they were. Nick Paul was a critical player when it mattered as he scored both goals in Game 7 to push the Lightning to the next round. 

The Maple Leafs bottom-six were outworked– notably the fourth line– and just couldn’t keep up with the speed, physicality and work ethic of the Lightning. The Lightning might have their work cut out for them as the Maple Leafs focussed in on that aspect. 

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With the new additions in Noel Acciari, Sam Lafferty and possibly Ryan O’Reilly– if he gets bumped down to the third line centre spot– the Maple Least have the pieces to match the bottom-six of the Lightning as they now have the same qualities as well. Let’s not forget about the role that Calle Jarnkrok has served, being a reliable middle-six winger. 

The combination that the Maple Leafs have in terms of speed, smarts, work ethic and intensity is exactly what you want from the third and fourth line. They have the ability to establish the attack off the forecheck, gaining meaningful zone time and getting quality shots and chances on net for a potential game changing goal. A perfect example of that is Noel Acciari’s first goal as a Maple Leaf. It was a result of getting into the zone quickly, crashing the net and taking advantage of the opportunity.

Having this added quickness and overall awareness at both ends of the ice, will surely benefit the Maple Leafs in their matchup with the Lightning. Depth is extremely vital and they could be the difference maker.

Bringing the Boom

On the surface, it looks like a rivalry has been formed after the physicality was amped up as the series progressed. The Lighting brought in Tanner Jeannot, adding to their abundance of grit and skill throughout the lineup. The Maple Leafs knew what to expect as their path to the Stanley Cup was going to be difficult. Bringing in Acciari, McCabe and Schenn shows that they can bring the physical play, but still play smart and execute their game plan. 

Luke Schenn Vancouver Canucks
Former Vancouver Canucks defenseman, Luke Schenn (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The current leader in hits is Zach Aston-Reese as he has 125, but if those three players were with the Maple Leafs for a longer period of time they would probably be the leaders. They play a menacing style that is made for the playoffs. 

 Hits With Previous TeamHits With Maple Leafs
Noel Acciari168 (St. Louis Blues)30 
Jake McCabe122 (Chicago Blackhawks)7
Luke Schenn258 (Vancouver Canucks)7

The Maple Leafs have matched that aggressive style both up front and on the back end to match the Lightning’s physicality as they know they need to be prepared for what’s to come. They have players who can make a timely hit without being taken out of the play, provide a presence in front of the net and jump in any scrums after the whistle. They’re now a team that won’t be pushed around like in the past.

The Maple Leafs have addressed every area of their lineup in order to be prepared for another likely matchup against the Lightning. The offense continues to click, they have the added depth and physical presence in order to win.

Related: Maple Leafs’ Mishandling of Goaltenders During Matthews’ Era

This team is in win now mode and with the additions they added, they’re definitely going to make an impact. This is an improved roster from the last time they faced the Lightning in the playoffs and they’re going to give their opponents a tough time.

Statistics from Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Reference and NHL.

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