To say the Toronto Maple Leafs’ first-round matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning has been delivered as advertised would be an understatement. With two of the top dogs in the Atlantic Division taking each other on in the first round, fireworks were to be expected. But from a Maple Leafs’ fan’s perspective, the version of the team that we’re seeing night in and night out has been impossible to analyze.
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They came out with probably their best performance of the season, including the regular season, to take Game 1 in commanding fashion. Tampa Bay hit back in Game 2. The Maple Leafs then ground out an ugly win against the Lightning for Game 3, only to be ripped to shreds in Game 4. And finally, after a terrible first period in Game 5, the Leafs channeled their inner Game 1 effort, and came from behind to take a 3-2 series lead over the Lightning.
Regardless of how you draw it up, the Maple Leafs once again find themselves in a position they were in the last two times they played a seven game series. Up 3-2 in the series, with two chances to close it out. Only this time, the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been before. The Maple Leafs are staring down the barrel of what would be their sixth straight first-round exit, with two chances to avoid it and send the back-to-back Cup champion Lightning packing instead. If they want to get that first round monkey off of their backs, a couple of things need to happen.
Maple Leafs’ Core Four Need to Lead the Charge
The biggest storyline around why the Maple Leafs fell to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of last season’s playoffs was that their two offensive catalysts in Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner didn’t play anywhere close to the level expected of them. Matthews scored only one goal in seven games, and Marner didn’t score a single goal while only tallying four assists. This year, so far at least, this doesn’t appear to be an issue. Matthews and Marner are tied for the lead in points among Leaf players with seven apiece through five games. Matthews has three goals and Marner already has two, which is a blessing seeing that he hadn’t scored a playoff goal in 18 games prior to his goal in Game 1.
On the other hand, you have John Tavares and William Nylander, who were under more scrutiny than anybody up until Tuesday night. Mainly Tavares, who’s battled inconsistency all season long. But with Tavares and Nylander both scoring big goals in Game 5, they’ve removed themselves from the spotlight a little bit. Nylander now has five points in five games and Tavares has four points in five.
Everything I’ve said so far shows that the Maple Leafs’ core four showing up to play isn’t an issue as it stands. However, none of this production will matter if the team can’t get it done in the remainder of this series. Or rather, if they can’t get it AND they don’t get any help from their star players. When the Maple Leafs are at the top of their game, it usually means that the core four is on their game. And if the Maple Leafs want to stop hearing about how they can’t win a round, the big guns are going to have to lead the way.
Maple Leafs’ Campbell Must Outduel Lightning’s Vasilevskiy
The one part of this series that I feel contributes to the Maple Leafs’ success so far more than anything (outside of their own play) is that they’ve been able to catch Andrei Vasilevskiy at a bad time. The Maple Leafs have put at least three goals past Vasilevskiy in each game of the series so far, and he’s only managed a save percentage (SV%) over .900 in one of the five games, which happened to be the loss Tampa Bay took in Game 3.
On the other hand, Jack Campbell hasn’t exactly put the team on his back, but he’s been better than his Lightning counterpart. Outside of that disastrous Game 4 that saw him pulled after allowing five goals on 16 shots, Campbell’s played well enough to give the Maple Leafs a chance to win, which is all that’s expected of him in the end. The Maple Leafs’ offense is high-octane enough to give Campbell a cushion most of the time.
But just like I said, the Maple Leafs won’t be winning any series if their stars don’t show up to play, and Campbell carries some similar responsibility. We saw earlier this season how hard it is for the Maple Leafs to win games when their goalies can’t make a save. Multiple five-goals-against efforts to teams like Montreal and Buffalo made that pretty obvious. Campbell has been a much better version of himself since coming back from injury, at least compared to where he was between January and March, and they’re going to need him to maintain that better version to shut down Tampa Bay’s top offensive threats for the rest of the series
Maple Leafs Must Embrace Identity, Abandon Jekyll & Hyde Act
This seems like a pretty “captain obvious” thing to say about this team, but in a series when we’ve seen the Maple Leafs play both some of their best hockey of the season and their worst hockey of the season, it’s relevant. It’s especially true considering their season literally hinges on which version of this team we’re going to see in these last few games — if it gets to that point. The Maple Leafs were up 3-1 at one point over the Canadiens in 2020-21, and Game 7 of that series was, to this day, one of the worst games I’ve seen the Maple Leafs play, so who honestly knows what to expect?
It seems kind of funny to say considering where the Maple Leafs are in the series right now, but with two possible games left to play, which version of the team are we going to see? The commanding, dominant team we saw in Game 1 and in the second half of Game 5? Or are we going to see the team from Game 4 that forgot to show up to the rink on all fronts? Or, perhaps, are we going to see a team somewhere in the middle of that from Games 2 and 3?
It’s painfully obvious to the fans at this point, and it should be painfully obvious to the Leafs, too. Their team is more than capable of making noise in the playoffs. This current Maple Leafs team has a 60-goal scorer, seven players who registered over 50 points, and six players with at least 20 goals. Their defense is the best I’ve seen in the past 15 years by a large margin, and while Campbell’s still building his NHL resume, he’s proven that he’s capable of being a top end goalie. All they have to do is show up to the arena and leave everything out on the ice, and they’re well capable of taking the series.
Maple Leafs Must Channel Their Killer Instinct on Thursday
Everything that’s taken place over the past year hinges on the rest of this series. The entire summer of heat from the media, the fans, and themselves. The year-long discourse about whether or not this core has what it takes to get it done in the playoffs. The 60-goal season from Matthews. The offensive outburst from Marner. The pleasant surprise and the Calder nomination of Michael Bunting. The massive bounce-back year for Morgan Rielly. Everything comes down to the rest of this week.
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You can say what you want about general manager Kyle Dubas, but he’s built, without a doubt, the most talented Maple Leafs team many of us have seen. Their defensive corps in the bubble had Justin Holl and Travis Dermott as a second pairing, and now we’re sitting here arguing whether or not Holl should even be in the lineup. And of course, the talent was never a question. But will they find that killer instinct and finally exorcise their demons? Or will it be another summer of the same narratives and the same question about “what went wrong”?. Stay tuned, and whether you’re a Maple Leafs fan, a Lightning fan, or a neutral with an appreciation for playoff hockey, enjoy the ride.