The big game is coming. On December 13, the first place Tampa Bay Lightning (24-7-1) play the second-place Toronto Maple Leafs (21-9-1) in Florida. No matter what happens, the Lightning will retain first place overall, because they lead the Maple Leafs by more than two points (49-43). But, this game involves swagger and, if the Maple Leafs win, they go a long way towards making a case for themselves.
Below, I rate the top six forwards from both teams to see how the teams stack up against each other – player-by-player.
Player vs. Player
Tampa Bay Lightning: Steven Stamkos (32 Games: 15 Goals, 18 Assists, 33 points)
After a quiet start to the season, the 28-year-old Stamkos has been hot recently. In the Lightning’s most recent game – a win against the New York Rangers – he scored his ninth career hat trick. And, he had two goals the game prior. There’s good reason to believe he will hit 40 goals for the fifth time in his career, but for the first time since 2014-15. Over the years, Stamkos’ game has evolved more into setting up teammates than scoring goals. He’s good enough to carry his team on his back.
Toronto Maple Leafs: John Tavares (31 Games: 19 Goals, 14 Assists, 33 points)
Tavares scored his 19th goal in his last game against the Carolina Hurricanes. The 28-year-old has been consistent all season. Early in October, he had a stretch of three games where he scored five goals and four assists, but mostly he’s not a binge scorer. He’s good and seems to always be on the score sheet one way or another.
Honestly, until Tavares signed with the Maple Leafs, I thought these two players were the same guy. They have, year after year, been both good and consistent: they are proven scorers and leaders. This year? They couldn’t be closer in production – each has 33 points.
The Edge: A Tie.
First Line Left Wingers
Tampa Bay Lightning: Ondrej Palat (16 Games: 2 Goals, 8 Assists, 10 points)
This 27-year-old Czech has had a tough season. He scored two goals on Saturday’s win over the Colorado Avalanche, but those were his first two goals this season. Skilled, but injury prone, Palat has only played 16 games this year. Perhaps his last game suggests he is coming around, but it’s tough to say. For him, it’s about staying on the ice.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Connor Brown (31 Games: 3 Goals, 6 Assists, 9 points)
Brown is replacing Zach Hyman, who is sitting out the second of his two-game suspension for running the Boston Bruins’ Charlie McAvoy. Brown has upside, but hasn’t had a point since an assist on Dec. 1 – one point in December, averaging over 14 minutes per game. That’s not much.
The tip of the helmet goes to Palat. Both players bring different skills to the ice, and the top-line, left winger for the Maple Leafs has the job (Hyman does it well) of clearing the ice for his line mates. For the Lightning, it’s score-score-score, and Palat does that better than Brown.
The Edge: Lightning
First Line Right Wingers
Tampa Bay Lightning: Yanni Gourde (32 Games: 10 Goals, 14 Assists, 24 points)
Although his numbers for the year look decent, Gourde has been on a recent scoring drought. He averages over 16 minutes per game, and had an assist in a shootout win over Detroit last week. But that’s only his third point in December. He started quickly, but has slowed down. Although Gourde is not that well known, last year he tallied 64 points — compared to William Nylander’s 61.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Mitch Marner (31 Games: 6 Goals, 35 Assists, 41 points)
The 21-year-old Marner is having a break out season. He is tied for fifth in NHL points, and his 35 assists are second only to the Colorado Avalanche’s Mikko Rantanen’s 39. He is an emerging star, who is getting better and better.
Marner is having the better season, which gives the Maple Leafs the edge. Gourde, like his Lightning team is good, but he’s not Marner.
The Edge: Maple Leafs
Second Line Centers
Tampa Bay Lightning: Brayden Point (32 Games: 21 Goals, 20 Assists, 41 points)
Brayden Point has hit the score sheet in 12 of his last 14 games – that, fans, is consistent. Point, if he continues as he has been playing, is on pace to score 105 points for the season – easily beating last year’s 64 points. He has already set a new career high with 13 power-play points (nine goals, four assists) on the season through only 28 games. The 22-year-old Point and his line mate Nikita Kucherov are one of the better line combinations in the NHL.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Auston Matthews (17 Games: 16 Goals, 11 Assists, 27 points)
Toronto Maple Leafs’ fans believe – at only 21-years-old – Matthews, like Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby, is a generation talent. He missed a number of games with a shoulder injury, but since his return against the San Jose Sharks on Nov. 28, he has not missed the score sheet. He has six goals and five assists in six games. Furthermore, he is averaging almost a goal a game – unheard of. Matthews is perhaps the best goal-scoring center in the NHL. There might be better play-makers, but for goal scorers – well, find me a better one.
Point is having an amazing season, and his numbers are higher because he hasn’t missed any games. However, he has “only” nine points-more-than-games-played, after 32 games: Matthews, has 14 fewer points; but, in terms of games played, he has 10 points-more-than-games-played, after 17 games. Point is really good, but Matthews is really great.
The Edge: Maple Leafs
Second Line Left Wingers
Tampa Bay Lightning: Tyler Johnson (31 Games: 12 Goals, 10 Assists, 22 points)
Perhaps I just don’t get much Florida hockey news in Canada, but I had to research Johnson to see what his body of work has been. CBS Sports calls Johnson “quietly effective,” so they might not know much about Johnson either. But, as little as we know, Johnson is on a 60-point season pace. Other than his hat trick against the Carolina Hurricanes on Oct. 16, he just seems to dump in a point here or there.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Andreas Johnsson (26 Games: 7 Goals, 6 Assists, 13 points)
In his last eight games, Johnsson has had five goals and five assists. After his amazingly-quick hat trick on Nov. 24 against the Philadelphia Flyers, Johnsson has become a regular contributor to the Maple Leafs’ line up. His recent play has been strong and he is starting to show some of the scoring skill that earned him AHL playoff MVP last season.
Johnson is a proven commodity: he is a seven-year veteran who averages – give or take – 50 points per year. On the other hand, Johnsson is an emerging talent who doesn’t have a large body of work, but whose short history suggests he might become really value added to the Maple Leafs. Tough call, but …
The Edge: Tie
Second Line Right Wingers
Tampa Bay Lightning: Nikita Kucherov (32 Games: 12 Goals, 33 Assists, 45 points)
Kucherov is a star. Since 2016-17, he has averaged more than a point a game and is currently third in league scoring – trailing only the Colorado Avalanche’s Mikko Rantanen (52 points) and Nathan MacKinnon (47 points) and ahead of Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid (43 points). Until the Lightning’s Dec. 4 shootout victory over the Detroit Red Wings, where his shootout goal won the game for the Lightning, Kucherov had a 10-game point streak. And, he has scored in every game after the streak was broken. He’s great, and might even score 115 points this season.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Kasperi Kapanen (31 Games: 11 Goals, 10 Assists, 21 points) or William Nylander (3 Games: 0 Goals, 2 Assists, 2 points)
It’s tough to say who will play the bulk of right wing on the second line. Kapanen has shown he is a capable offensive player, and he held the fort during William Nylander’s holdout. He is skillful, speedy, and gaining confidence. Whether he plays in the top six or is moved to Nazem Kadri’s line, he adds value to the Maple Leafs’ offense.
We all know Nylander’s story. Playing his third game back from a holdout, Nylander registered two assists and his play has improved. He needs time to get into game shape, but he adds to his team’s success in short bursts. He will get better as the year goes by, but he isn’t there yet.
No matter who plays for the Maple Leafs at right wing on the second line, Kucherov is currently better in myriad ways. We’re not talking about next year, but for right now …
The Edge: Lightning
My research suggests that, when evaluating the top six forwards of both the Lightning and the Maple Leafs, the Lightning have the edge in two spots, the Maple Leafs have the edge in two spots, and two spots are toss ups. It should be an interesting game. Certainly, fans of both teams will know more at game’s end than they did when the game started.