Maple Leafs & Lightning Series Coming Down to Special Teams

Following game one of the Stanley Cup Playoffs round between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Tampa Bay Lightning, we wrote that we felt Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe might be perfectly willing to let special teams decide this series.

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While only one power-play goal was scored in Game 1 of the series on eleven total power-play chances, a five-on-three tally by the Maple Leafs, the Maple Leafs also scored a shorthanded goal. In addition, the Maple Leafs successfully killed off all five of the Lightning’s chances including a five-minute major call on Kyle Clifford, which might have been the turning point of the game. The Maple Leafs dominated from that point on, never giving the Lightning any life at all.  

Game 2 Was a Different Story from the Maple Leafs Win in Game 1

Game 2 was a different story, however. Tampa scored three goals on seven power-play chances while the Maple Leafs went zero for four. The Maple Leafs did score another shorthanded goal; but, in general, what went well for the Maple Leafs in Game 1 did not go well for them in Game 2.

Alex Kerfoot Toronto Maple Leafs
Alex Kerfoot scored a short-handed goal for the Maple Leafs in Game (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

To make matters worse, the Maple Leafs’ power-play that was the best in the NHL in the regular season has now gone zero for nine at five-on-four. Their only power-play goal was the five-on-three goal in Game 1. Tampa meanwhile has scored three times on 12 chances, all three of those power-play goals were scored in Game 2.  

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If we remove the special team goals in Game 2, the five-on-five goals in that game were two each. The Maple Leafs won the five-on-five portion of Game 1 three to nothing. Over the two-game total, the Maple Leafs have outscored the Lightning five to three. According to Naturalststtrick.com, they also have a slight advantage (51%) in expected goals at five-on-five in the series.

One other factor that seems to be key in this series is scoring first. Of course, not only did the Maple Leafs score first in game one, they were the only team that scored. Jack Campbell posted the shutout. But, scoring first also forced the Lightning to gamble and take extra chances, leading to odd-man rushes and more scoring chances for the Maple Leafs.  

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The same thing happened in Game 2 only the other way around. When the Lightning went up 2-0 and 3-1, it forced the Maple Leafs to open the game up. That led to odd-man rushes and good scoring chances for the Lightning.  

Keys to the Maple Leafs Winning the Series

Despite the Maple Leafs scoring two shorthanded goals in this series, they can’t afford the give Tampa power-play chances. With Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Victor Hedman all on their top power-play unit, they’re way too talented to keep them off the scoreboard when they have the man advantage. 

Victor Hedman Tampa Bay Lightning
Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The referees appear to be calling this series tight. The Maple Leafs’ players have to be aware of that. They’ve taken twelve penalties in the first two games of this series. That’s way too many.  

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The Maple Leafs must keep playing to their strengths. While Tampa has a number of offensively gifted players, so do the Maple Leafs. Both sides will get their scoring chances. 

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Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner already have a combined one more point after two games in this series than they had in the entire seven-game series versus the Montreal Canadiens last season. William Nylander hasn’t registered a point yet, and John Tavares has only one assist in the two games; however, they are not going to continue to be held off the scoresheet. It will be tougher, but they’ll get their chances.  

Thus Far, Andrei Vasilevskiy Isn’t on His Game in This Series

One last point. Andrei Vasilevskiy’s play in the playoffs the last two seasons has become legendary. If we look at his two games to this point, he’s made some great saves, but overall he’s been rather ordinary. He’s given up eight goals in the two games and has a save percentage of 0.879. 

In this series, he’s not been the Vasilevskiy of the past two seasons. Instead, he’s played closer to the same goalie who was in the net when the Lightning lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets four games straight. In that series, he posted a goals-against-average of 3.82 and a save percentage of 0.856.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have scored two goals against Andrei Vasilevskiy this series
(Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Looking at his last ten games played in the regular season, his goals-against-average was 3.17, and his save percentage was 0.904. If the Maple Leafs keep getting their scoring chances, which they will, they can score on him.  

The Maple Leafs need to go into their next game with the idea of continuing to limit the dangerous scoring chances by the Lightning and letting their own scoring chances come. Don’t force the game. Let it come to them.  

While it would be nice to see the Maple Leafs win both games in Florida; and, that is what their plan should be, all they have to do is split the two games. That would return the home-ice advantage to them.

[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.]