It's a case of deja vu for the Toronto Maple Leafs as they find themselves facing off against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second year in a row. Last year's series was an intense seven-game battle, with the Lightning ultimately prevailing and making a run to the Stanley Cup Final.
However, they fell just short of winning it all, and now the Lightning will look to repeat their success against the Leafs, while Toronto will seek redemption after coming so close to knocking off the eventual Eastern Conference champions. Both the Leafs and the Lightning have had strong regular seasons, but now it's time to see how they stack up against each other in the playoffs.
To get a sense of each team's strengths and weaknesses, let's take a closer look at their respective statistics and compare them head-to-head.
Here's a tale of the tape for the upcoming series:
Toronto was the series favorite (-120) in 2022, and they will be again in 2023. The Lightning were much better on offense and defense in the 2021-22 season than they have been in 2022-23, and the Maple Leafs grade out as the better team in most categories. What stands out at first blush, though, is that while Toronto is the better team overall, especially when it comes to scoring goals, there’s not a lot separating the team’s defensively and both teams generate the same number of expected goals which suggests the margin of victory could be narrow once again.
I mean, Tampa Bay’s top players are as good as, if not better than the Maple Leafs’ top guys, though, and this is made most obvious by the team’s power play percentage. This could be a problem for Toronto, as they outscored Montreal (2021) and Tampa Bay (2022) at even strength in the last two playoff series, but their power play converted on 13.7 percent of their opportunities combined and each ended in a game-seven defeat for the Maple Leafs.
The Lightning aren’t as deep as the Maple Leafs, but likely the series is going to be decided by the star players and that could come down to which team’s stars are better in high leverage situations. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares must outshine the likes of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Brayden Point. There are other factors that should be discussed, though, such as, recent form, goaltending, and – the elephant in the room – Toronto hasn’t won a playoff series since 2004.
Neither Team Looks Convincing Right Now
Both teams have the potential to be great, but neither team has looked the part of a Stanley Cup contender since the trade deadline. It’s possible that Toronto’s general manager, Kyle Dubas, went overboard trying to add to his team, as the Maple Leafs rank 19th in expected goals and 17th in shot attempts since March 1st, but now that his biggest addition, Ryan O’Reilly, is back in the lineup.
Toronto is also in a scoring slump, ranking 19th in even strength goals (per 60) since March 1st, but the Lightning are in even deeper, ranking 28th during that same stretch. Tampa Bay’s 2.17 goals per 60 over the last month is considerably lower than you’d expect, given the talent on this team, but it goes to show you how losing so many good players over the last couple of seasons has taken its toll. Now, players like Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos account for a bigger share of the team’s goals than ever before.
Who will start in goal for the Maple Leafs?
Head coach Sheldon Keefe must determine what he values more heading into the first round: Matt Murray’s playoff experience or Ilya Samsonov’s elite current form. I personally wouldn’t think twice about it, given that the latter ranks among the top-10 goaltenders in GSA (goals saved above expected) and the former has been average. Matt Murray won two Stanley Cups as part of some great teams in Pittsburgh, but he’s also never come close to matching the numbers that he put up in during that two-year stretch. Murray’s save percentage has been declining for months, and after his latest injury scare, it should make what should be an easy decision even easier.
Don’t forget about The Big Cat
You’d think after all that hockey that Andrei Vasilevskiy has played, he would be starting to wear down, but somehow, he keeps getting better. Vasilevskiy is having the best regular season of his career, at least through the lens of GSAx (goals saved above expected) and the Lightning might not be in the playoff picture without him. Goaltending is one area that Tampa Bay does have an edge in, and if Vasilevskiy can steal a series. The 28-year-old has a 30-16 record in the playoffs since 2020-21 and, when you take the number of post season games that he’s played into account, his .929 save percentage is first among goaltenders who have played at least 14 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs over the last three seasons.
Can the Maple Leafs finally win a playoff series?
The fact that the city of Toronto hasn’t seen their beloved Maple Leafs win a playoff series since 2004 is comical and nothing else. I’m not saying it’s easy to play in Toronto with that hanging over your head. I just don’t think it’s holding the Maple Leafs back when the puck drops on the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Maple Leafs have made embarrassing mistakes, but anyone who watched the team in their first-round series versus the Lightning in 2022 must have noticed that the team has matured. Even in defeat, the Maple Leafs young core showed that they can play playoff hockey, so the answer is: Yes, Toronto can win a playoff series, but that’s not the question that should be asked.
What are Toronto's odds of winning the series?
A best-of-7 series can result in a range of outcomes, from a clean sweep by one team to a full seven-game series that could go either way and the best team doesn’t always come out on top. Toronto is the superior team in this series, and I predict that they win 59 percent of the time, but as shown by the distributions in the chart below, it wouldn’t be shocking to see these teams go the distance once again.
DraftKings Sportsbook posted series odds on Tuesday, and the Maple Leafs are listed as the favorite at -140. That likely makes what I’m about to say anticlimactic: 59 percent converts to odds of -144, which means neither team is a value bet. Last season, I bet on the Lightning at +110 to win the series because I thought they were the better team. This season, it’s clear that Toronto is the superior team and there's nothing egregious about how the series is currently priced.
Series Spread Predictions
Series Props were also posted at DraftKings Sportsbook recently, such as series spread, series correct score, and total games. You can compare my projections to odds at various sportsbook to possibly find value in these prop markets.
Series Spread Betting Predictions
Series Correct Score Predictions
Sorry, Toronto. Of all the possible ways that the Maple Leafs can win the series, once again having to win a do-or-die Game 7 seems like a real possibility.
How many games will Tampa Bay and Toronto play in the series?
As mentioned, the Maple Leafs and Lightning went the distance in the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and there's a 62 percent chance that they will play at least six games in 2023.