Maple Leafs Are Giving Lightning Their Toughest Test in Years

Over the last two postseasons, there were few questions about who was the best team in a series involving the Tampa Bay Lightning. In fact, I can remember the exact moment when I last felt that the Lightning were, definitively, the second-best team on the ice. Looking back, it was when the Columbus Blue Jackets put two goals past Andrei Vasilevskiy in the first period of Game 2 of the 2020 playoffs after they scored the first goal of the game.

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At that moment, it was impossible to feel anything other than doubt about the Lightning, especially against the Blue Jackets. This was the franchise that swept them a year prior despite being one of the best regular-season teams of all time, after all, and took them to five overtimes in Game 1 behind a monster performance from Joonas Korpisalo. While that win was incredible, the immediate letdown of Game 2 left a lot of questions about whether or not this team was capable of winning it all, whether Vasilevskiy was just a paper tiger in the postseason, and about if Tampa Bay’s stars had truly earned their status in the league with their mediocre postseason performances.

Jon Cooper Tampa Bay Lightning
For a brief moment during the 2020 NHL Playoffs, it felt like the Tampa Bay Lightning could flame out of the Bubble before they went on a run and won the Stanley Cup. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

As we now know, of course, the Lightning would go on to win their next three games against the Blue Jackets, take the series 4-1, and never look back until they captured the 2020 Stanley Cup. Following that Game 2 loss against Columbus, there was never really a moment where I felt that same kind of concern about Tampa Bay, as they looked like a squad who was destined to win it all. Every shift had a purpose, and at no point did they appear content to do anything other than raise the Cup over their head.

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In the following 2021 postseason, Tampa Bay was once again on a mission. From puck drop of Game 1 against the Florida Panthers to their game-winning goal against the Montreal Canadiens in front of a raucous crowd, they definitively proved that their 2020 championship was no Bubble fluke. They were the dominant team in every series they played, and while the New York Islanders took them to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, I never doubted that they weren’t going to win.

Lightning Finding Maple Leafs to Be Toughest Opponent Yet

Heading into the 2022 NHL Playoffs, the matchup between the Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs looked like it was going to be the definitive series of the first round. Both teams feature some of the deepest rosters in the NHL, with core players who helped define what it means to be a superstar in the league.

Related: 2022 NHL Draft Guide

However, while they are going to Game 7, this series did not go as expected on the ice. Momentum has swung wildly game-to-game, with the first four matchups barely looking competitive for long stretches of time. Teams will play like a champion for one game, then be completely outmatched the next, as if their entire roster had changed in the days between.

This is the nature of the NHL Playoffs, of course. It’s incredibly hard to win four games against these highly talented opponents, and momentum can be gained or lost with one pass. Even with that in mind, this has been an uneven series that has left room for doubt in both fan bases.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs Andrei Vasilevskiy Tampa Bay Lightning
With NHL superstars like Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Lightning and Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, it should come as no surprise that this Round 1 matchup is going the distance. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

If the Maple Leafs play as they did in Game 1 or 3, they should win. If the Lightning come out strong and play as they did in Game 2 or 4, it’s hard to imagine them not slipping by Toronto. Finally, if both teams crackdown and play even better than they did in Game 6, then there’s a real possibility that this tilt could be another overtime game decided by one mistake.

Lightning Should Feel Doubt Before Game 7

With Game 7 looming, there is one thing that can be taken out of this series for the Lightning. The Maple Leafs have been their toughest postseason opponent over their recent dominant runs. This is no disrespect to the teams they faced in 2020 or 2021, of course, but just a sign of respect for how good Toronto is. For a team that has such a negative reputation due to previous failures, they truly are something special to watch as a pure fan of the sport.

Related: Maple Leafs’ Biggest Opponent In the Playoffs Will Be Themselves

If the Lightning are able to win Game 7, it will be because they played a near-perfect game, not because the Maple Leafs imploded as they did in 2021. It will take a full-team effort, and even if they play their best hockey, there’s still a chance they could lose this game if Toronto’s stars simply reach their maximum potential.

Such are the wonders of postseason hockey. It truly is a special time of the year for fans, and hopefully Game 7 will be a defining moment that the league will look back on and point to as an example of one of the best the sport has to offer.