4 Keys the Maple Leafs Must Address to Beat the Lightning

For the second season in a row, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Tampa Bay Lightning will be facing off against each other in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

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Today we look at four areas that we believe will be key if the Maple Leafs wish to finally get through to the next round of the playoffs. 

Area No. 1: The Maple Leafs Must Limit Tampa’s Top Three Forwards

This might seem like stating the obvious, but limiting the effectiveness of Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Steven Stamkos will go a long way to helping the Maple Leafs have success against the Lightning. 

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Those three players have accounted for 115 goals, or 41 percent of Tampa’s 280 goals this season. If we compare that to the top-three goal scorers of the Maple Leafs, Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and John Tavares have 116 goals, which also happens to be 41 percent of the Maple Leafs’ 278 total goals scored. 

Mitch Marner John Tavares Timothy Liljegren Celebrate Toronto Maple Leafs
Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and Timothy Liljegren celebrate a goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

There is no way the Maple Leafs will be capable of keeping the Lightning’s top-three forwards off the scoresheet altogether. But, if they can limit their production to the point where the Maple Leafs’ top-three forwards can outscore them, the Maple Leafs will have a good chance of winning this series. 

Area No. 2: The Maple Leafs Must Keep Left

For the majority of any game in this upcoming series, the Maple Leafs’ forwards will be facing either Victor Hedman or Mikhail Sergachev. Those two left-side defensemen average about 24 minutes per game each. That means for 48 of the 60 minutes of regulation time, if a Toronto forward is trying to advance the puck on their right side of the ice, they will be doing so against two of the best defensemen in the league. 

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If we look at the other side of the ice, the four defensemen that have played the most for Tampa this season are Erik Chernak, Darren Raddysh, Nicklaus Perbix, and Zach Bogosian. If the Lightning do have a weakness on defense, it is on that right side.   

It just so happens that the two best wingers on the Maple Leafs, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander, play the right side. If they try to penetrate Tampa Bay’s defense on their natural side of the ice, they will have to go directly through Hedman or Sergachev.

William Nylander Toronto Maple Leafs
William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

If the Maple Leafs want to use their best two puck-handling wingers, while at the same time target the weaker side of Tampa Bay’s defense, they might have to find a way to get Marner and Nylander over on their wrong sides. That might mean having them start some shifts on their opposite side, or having them skate more east to west during the play. Whatever they do, life on the ice would be much more successful if the Maple Leafs could find a way to take advantage of the imbalance Tampa has on their back end. 

Area No. 3: The Maple Leafs Depth Must Beat the Lightning Depth 

When it came down to Game 7 last season, it was Tampa Bay’s bottom six that came through for the win. Nick Paul scored both goals for the Lightning as they won that game, 2-1. To avoid a repeat of that happening, the Maple Leafs’ bottom-six forwards will have to be just as good as Tampa’s bottom six, if not better. 

Area No. 4: The Maple Leafs Must Get Carry Over from Samsonov

Ilya Samsonov has just finished his best regular season in the NHL. He had the most wins of his career (27 in 40 starts), the highest winning percentage (0.738 percent), the highest save percentage (0.919), and the lowest goals-against average (2.33) of his career.  

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He needs to carry that into the postseason. If he plays just as well in the playoffs as he did in the regular season, goaltending should not be the Maple Leafs’ issue. 

The Maple Leafs’ Bottom Line

If the Maple Leafs can accomplish all four of the above or even three of the four, they should, for the first time in almost 20 years, win the opening round of a Stanley Cup Playoff series. 

The regular season, as it played out, suggests that the Maple Leafs have the better team. Now the task is to leverage every advantage and get on the kind of role that takes them a long way in these Stanley Cup playoffs.

[Note: I want to thank long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith for collaborating with me on this post. Stan’s Facebook profile can be found here.]

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