Maple Leafs’ 3 Up, 3 Down: Bunting, the Lightning and Jack is Back

It’s official. The regular season is over and the Toronto Maple Leafs are getting set for a tough first-round playoff matchup. The season was filled with headlines and storylines that were both record-setting and very telling at times throughout the year. However, in the past week the Maple Leafs have learned who they will be seeing when they kick off the playoffs next week and have also had some injury news that could determine their lineup in Game 1 on Monday.

Toronto Maple Leafs 3 Up, 3 Down
Toronto Maple Leafs (The Hockey Writers)

As is often the case, the Maple Leafs saw some ups and downs over the past seven days and with that in mind, here’s a breakdown of some of the top headlines — both good and bad — regarding the blue and white.

Plus One: Maple Leafs’ Matthews Tucks 60

If knocking off Rick Vaive as the single-season goal record holder wasn’t enough for Auston Matthews, it surely won’t hurt that he became the first player in franchise history to hit the 60-goal plateau and the first player league-wide to do so in a decade.

Related: Auston Matthews’ Goal Scoring Abilities Are Superior to Draisaitl, Caufield

While the milestone all but secured the Hart Trophy for the soon-to-be two-time Rocket Richard winner, his regular season performance put his goal scoring abilities on show for the entire league for a second consecutive season.

Having missed time due to injuries and a suspension that cost him another two contests, Matthews noticed 60 goals and 106 points in just 73 games for the Maple Leafs this season.

He finished third in the league in points per game (1.45) behind only Connor McDavid and Nikita Kucherov. He finished first in even-strength goals (44), with nine more than the next closest and tied for third with 16 power play goals as well.

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He had the most shots in the league with 348, but when you’re scoring at a success rate of 17.2 percent, it seems pretty simple — shoot the puck. That success, however, is something that Maple Leafs’ fans would like to see carry over to the postseason, especially against the high-powered Tampa Bay Lightning in round one.

Minus One: A Storm Brewing in Round One

A stacked Atlantic Division didn’t do the Maple Leafs any favours this season as the team finished the regular season in second in the division with 54 wins and 115 points, but will have to take on the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Lighting.

The Lightning finished third in the Atlantic with 51 wins and five points shy of the Maple Leafs, but it’ll come as no surprise that the Lightning know what needs to get done to go on yet another run. As for the Maple Leafs, they will look to exorcise their first-round demons once again, but the Lightning might be their toughest test this postseason.

Tampa Bay Lightning Mikhail Sergachev Toronto Maple Leafs Mitch Marner
Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Mikhail Sergachev trips up Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Mitch Marner (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette)

During the regular season, the Maple Leafs went 16-8-2 against Atlantic Division opponents. As for the Lightning specifically, the teams split the regular season series 2-2 with the Maple Leafs coming out with a minus-four goal differential in those four games. That said, the Maple Leafs gave up just eight goals in those first three games against the Lightning, it was a late-season blowout that skewed the numbers slightly.

Still, the numbers could be worse for the Maple Leafs against their divisional foe. Could fatigue play a role in a team that has gone on two consecutive playoff runs, or could this simply be the year the Maple Leafs find a way out of the first round. One thing is for sure, there’s a storm coming to Toronto and this series should be lights out.

Plus Two: Campbell’s Solid Return

If going into the playoffs, goaltending was your concern for the Maple Leafs, Jack Campbell might be providing you with a little more reassurance than you may have expected following his brief struggles to start 2022.

While his numbers had dipped from the start of the season, Campbell’s time off dealing with an injury has helped him recapture his early season form. In fact, since mid-April he’s 4-0-1 with a .932 save percentage in five starts. Talk about finding your groove at the right time of the season.

Still, he has shown this season that he can have shaky moments and that’s what the Maple Leafs have to look for in trying to help him out of those jams. That said, his season numbers weren’t horrible as he finished 31-9-6 in 49 games with a 2.64 goals against average and .914 save percentage which is slightly lower than his career average.

It’s down to seven games, for now, but for Campbell he needs to look at this one game at a time.

Minus Two: Maple Leafs’ Bunting Injured Late

It was a late-season blow to the Maple Leafs’ top line of Matthews, Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting when Bunting went down with a lower-body injury, especially because that line had been on a particular tear over the past couple of months. However, Bunting has been skating on his own and with Hayley Wickenheiser as of late which could signal a quick return as the playoffs fast approach. That said, if the Maple Leafs remain without him, there will be some decisions to make as they head into the playoffs.

Michael Bunting, Toronto Maple Leafs
Michael Bunting, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by André Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

Bunting has been a major acquisition this season for the Maple Leafs who signed the 26-year-old to a two-year deal in the offseason worth $1.9 million. In his first full season, while playing most of it alongside Matthews and Marner, Bunting has put up solid numbers with 23 goals and 63 points in 79 games — leading all rookies in scoring and finishing tied for second in goals.

While a number of players could succeed alongside Matthews and Marner if Bunting isn’t set to go for Game 1, his role with the Maple Leafs’ top two scorers was evident this season and would be a major hole for the team against a strong Lightning franchise.

Plus Three: 12 Maple Leafs Finished With Career Years

Yes, you read that right. Twelve Maple Leafs’ players finished the 2021-22 regular season having had career years offensively — including, Matthews, Marner, William Nylander, Bunting, Alexander Kerfoot, Pierre Engvall, Ilya Mikheyev, David Kampf, Timothy Liljegren, Justin Holl, Rasmus Sandin and Ilya Lyubushkin.

On top of that, twelve players also finished with 10 or more goals, a perfect demonstration of just how deep this team is this season. Players like David Kampf, who’ve always been recognized as defensively sound players, produced for the Maple Leafs in their respective roles.

Related: 5 Keys for a Long Maple Leafs’ Playoff Run

As with anything, though, the team needs these players to continue their success when the puck drops on playoffs this coming week. Without the depth, they don’t stand a chance against the Lightning. After all, it was the Lightning’s third line that help them to back-to-back Cups over the past two seasons.

Minus Three: Maple Leafs Face Decisions Defensively

It might not be a bad problem to have, but with injuries and an overload of defensemen, the Maple Leafs will have some decisions to make when it comes to their lineup on the back end.

Sandin is still working his way back from a lower-body injury, but already the team has a full platoon of NHL-capable blue liners — including Jake Muzzin, who just returned from an injury, Mark Giordano, T.J. Brodie, Lyubushkin, Morgan Rielly, Liljegren and Holl.

Mark Giordano Toronto Maple Leafs
Mark Giordano, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images)

While most of the season the majority of Leafs Nation would suggest Holl be the odd man out, his playoff experience — albeit small in sample size — could land him a spot in the Maple Leafs lineup. That said, the pairings that have seemingly worked so far this season are as follows: Rielly-Lyubushkin, Brodie-Muzzin and Giordano-Liljegren.

The way that Liljegren has developed and competed this season it’s hard to imagine he would come out of the lineup, especially with the help of Giordano. Holl also won’t overthrow any of the other five for a roster spot which should make this a difficult decision for Sheldon Keefe and the Maple Leafs.

Don’t forget about Sandin either, as he quarterbacked the Maple Leafs’ second power play unit early in the season and could return at some point depending on the team’s playoff run.

While all these decisions loom, the Maple Leafs will get set for their first-round series to kick off on Monday when the Lightning travel to Toronto for Game 1 of this Atlantic Division matchup.

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