Maple Leafs/Lightning Rivalry as Intense as Ever

The rivalry between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning seemed inevitable because the Atlantic Division has been largely dominated by four teams for the last four of five seasons (excluding the COVID-19 shortened campaign). The Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers, and, of course, the Lightning and Maple Leafs have been absolute powerhouses, making it almost unfair to the rest of the division. When it comes to the playoff matchups, the Maple Leafs and Bruins have had their battles as Original Six teams, while the Panthers and Lightnings are interstate rivals.

John Tavares Toronto Maple Leafs Andrei Vasilevskiy Tampa Bay Lightning
Toronto Maple Leafs Center John Tavares screens Tampa Bay Lightning Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (Photo by Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

However, the competition between the Lightning and Maple Leafs is highlighted by their similarities. The series during the 2022 NHL Playoffs was their first, but it may not be the last, and it solidified a rivalry that fans of both teams have come to enjoy.

Comparisons Between the Maple Leafs and Lightning

For several years, their structure, formation, core players, and playing style have made these teams pretty equal and bitter rivals. The Lightning’s core four include Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Anthony Cirelli, and Brayden Point, while the Maple Leafs have Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander. Victor Hedman and Morgan Rielly, though they aren’t in the same tier, are both tasked with the same job: to be their team’s stud on the blue line. 

The biggest difference between the teams is between the pipes. Andrei Vasilevskiy is arguably the best goalie in the NHL, and well, the Maple Leafs have had a plethora of netminders from Fredrik Andersen to Jack Campbell, and now Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov, and none of them are in the same tier as Vasilevskiy.

Ilya Samsonov Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Samsonov, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Before winning back-to-back championships in 2020 and 2021, the Lightning had struggles similar to the Leafs in the playoffs. Tampa Bay did make the Final when Stamkos was still in his 20s in 2015, but he didn’t win his first Cup until he was 30. Matthews hopes to copy Stamkos and find playoff success for the first time in the “Matthews era,” which began in 2016-17. At just 25, there’s a good chance he will have his name etched onto the Cup before his 30th birthday. Despite their struggles, the Lightning managed to overcome them and win the Stanley Cup, which might make the Maple Leafs feel envious, as they haven’t overcome theirs.

April 21, 2022: Maple Leafs vs. Lightning

On April 21, 2021, the Maple Leafs and Lightning squared off in their final matchup of the 2020-21 regular season, a relatively meaningless game since the two teams were scheduled to play each other in the first round. Tampa Bay capitalized on the Maple Leafs, scoring eight goals — Toronto only managed to get one past Lightning goaltender Vasilevskiy.

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This game was all about setting the tone, and in a contest that saw 114 penalty minutes and six misconducts, the mission was accomplished. The two teams met 16 days later in Game 1. And when it comes to rivalries, the two biggest factors are goals and physicality, which this game had.

A Rivalry Was Born…

The teams seemed to have a big brother-little brother dynamic, the Lightning has always been a team like the Maple Leafs, but they have worked hard to become; this has given Toronto the motivation to disprove everyone. On May 5, 2022, seven minutes after Game 1 began, Maple Leafs forward Kyle Clifford was called for a boarding penalty on Ross Colton and received a five-minute major and a game misconduct. The pace never slowed, as the Maple Leafs scored five goals and shut out the Lightning.

In the third period, all hell broke loose, with 78 penalty minutes handed out in one altercation that included a fight between Rielly and Jan Rutta. It was the perfect kick starter for the series and had the fans asking for more.

Related: 3 Takeaways From the Lightning’s Game 6 Overtime Win vs. Maple Leafs

Unfortunately, in a drama-filled game, the Lightning prevailed. Before the Dec. 3 game, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper discussed the postseason series between the two teams: “I just remember it was two good hockey teams that went at it. If you played seven more games, it probably would’ve gone seven more. It was that close.” Game 7 saw a questionable interference call on Justin Holl, which resulted in Tavares’s late goal being reversed and led to a power play for Tampa Bay. On the penalty kill, Alex Kerfoot took another penalty 200 feet from his net, which led to a five-on-three, and Kucherov scored to tie the game before Point won it in overtime.

The Lightning won the series, handing the Maple Leafs their sixth straight first-round exit. Simmonds had this to say about the loss: “This is a team that is standing in our way, right? Obviously, we know what happened. It is going to fuel us a little bit.”

Maple Leafs vs. Lightning Rivalry Going Forward

The Maple Leafs and Lightning met again on Dec. 3, 2022, and it had a playoff atmosphere. The two teams played a hard-fought game, but like Game 6, Tavares’ late goal was called back, and Tampa Bay took the game in overtime. Just like last year, this game didn’t end without hostility. Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe seemed to anticipate the tension and put Wayne Simmonds in the lineup, saying, “It is a veteran team here in Tampa. There is some size and physicality and there could be some mismatches there. We get another guy with some size, presence, and experience in.”

Although he didn’t take part in any of the back-to-back scrums between Nylander and Kucherov and Murray and Cirelli, his presence made an impact. Simmonds commented on the playoff defeat following the game as follows: “This is a team that is standing in our way, right? Obviously, we know what happened. It is going to fuel us a little bit.”

These teams will play each other again on Dec. 20 and April 11, 2022, respectively. Based on the season, the game on Dec. 20 might be less physical and more structured. The third game, which will take place on April 11, will be their final encounter and the Maple Leafs’ second-to-last contest of the year. If last season was any indication as to what we can expect from these two teams, is anything like April 11, 2022, might be an extremely physical game.

Related: Lightning Are Obviously Better With Cirelli in the Lineup

This rivalry could be considered one of the most entertaining in the NHL. If the playoffs started today, these two would be playing each other. So, buckle up and enjoy. It’s only getting more intense from here.

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