With only five games left in the regular season, the Toronto Maple Leafs have all but officially secured 2nd spot in the Atlantic Division. At this point in the season, with the Eastern Conference set, it is just playing for home ice and playoff positioning, and things have become clear that the Leafs only have two potential 1st round suitors. Toronto will have a 1st round date with the defending back-to-back cup winner, the Tampa Bay Lightning, or their biggest playoff foe in recent history, the Boston Bruins. But which team will the Maple Leafs face in the 1st round, and will they advance to the 2nd round for the 1st time since 2004?
The Tampa Bay Lightning currently are in 3rd place in the Atlantic, and it appears that the math points to them facing the Toronto Maple Leafs, with a 77% chance of meeting each other. The defending two times Stanley Cup winner has looked to slow down a bit, and that is understandable after dominating two seasons in a row. But could this be the perfect time for the Maple Leafs to strike and knock out the Lightning? I believe so, I think that this could be a year for the Leafs to make a long playoff push, and it could be a considerable boost to eliminate Tampa and build on that momentum going into the 2nd round.
Although Tampa is a scary powerhouse of a team, I think Toronto can stack up nicely in some aspects of the game. Tampa has an advantage in goal with Andrei Vasilevskiy between the pipes versus Jack Campbell. Both netminders are competitors, but Vasilevskiy is a freak of nature and one of the best goalies. The defense is closer than some think, but I think this must go to Tampa based on Victor Hedman and how he can steal a game and/or a series for the Lightning. Hedman, in my opinion, is pound for pound the best defender in the league, and he is the type of D-man that Toronto lacks in terms of star power. The Leafs do have a better defensive core since the deadline and the acquisition of Giordano, but I still feel Hedman is a game-changer type of player who also is in the running for the Norris, year after year. Lastly, Forwards, I believe the advantage goes to Toronto. It’s incredibly close, Tampa has a tremendous forward group, but I feel that Toronto’s forwards have the confidence going into the playoffs after the season they are all having. However, Auston Matthews and his 58 games and 101 points, as well as Mitch Marner and his 94 points this season, if these guys come in flying like they are, they can be the difference in the series, the type of series-changer that the Maple Leafs have needed for quite some time.
There is still a chance that the Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins will face off each other in the 1st round, and we will discuss that in part 2 of this article, but it seems more and more likely that the Lightning will be the team that the Maple Leafs look to defeat finally advance out of the 1st round. Toronto and Tampa are set to play each other Thursday, April 21st, and it should have a playoff atmosphere to it, which will give both fan bases a preview of the potential playoff match-up.