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Leafs vs. Lightning Preview: To Be The Best, You Gotta Beat The Best

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The Leafs host the best team in the NHL in their first game of 2018, and they’ve made some roster moves in advance of the game.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Tampa Bay Lightning: Game 41

Time: 7:00 EST

Location: ACC

Broadcast/Streaming: Sportsnet

Opponent SBNation Site: Raw Charge (hi Acha!)

(An earlier edition of this story incorrectly had the Leafs on an endless road trip of pain and agony at Amalie Arena, and not at home. We regret the error.)

It’s thunder, and it’s lightning, and it’s all things too frightening.

Love me a rock singer with a Scottish brogue.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are the consensus best team in the NHL right now, both in the standings and in other numbers. They’re at or near the top of the league in almost every stat: goals per game (1st), goals against per game (2nd), adjusted 5v5 CF% (2nd), power play percentage (1st), expected goals (4th), you name it. Hey, at least they’re mediocre at penalty-killing (23rd.) They have a sky-high PDO, but they’re also just legit very good.

While the Leafs are still in a dead heat with Boston for second in the Atlantic, the Lightning are so far ahead that catching them is not realistic—even if the Leafs were to sweep the season series against the Bolts, that wouldn’t be enough by itself. But should the Leafs be fortunate enough to get to and through the first round, there is a pretty good chance they’ll be staring down the Lightning in Round Two.

Let’s roll. Er, hold on...

This seems to imply that Curtis McElhinney’s injury that cropped up before the Leafs even played in Arizona and kept him from starting in Denver and from backing up in Vegas is now totally better. Either that or the Leafs have a non-playable backup as they apparently did in Arizona.

Toronto Maple Leafs

From morning skate today.

Forward Lines

Zach Hyman - Auston Matthews - William Nylander

Patrick Marleau - Nazem Kadri - Leo Komarov

James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Mitch Marner

Matt Martin - Frederik Gauthier - Connor Brown

Dominic Moore, Josh Leivo

Defence Pairings

Morgan Rielly - Ron Hainsey

Jake Gardiner - Connor Carrick

Andreas Borgman - Roman Polak

Martin Marincin

Goaltenders

Frederik Andersen

Curtis McElhinney

That dazzling forward group gets a lot worse without Nazem Kadri in it. There’s no getting around his importance to our team, much as I like Patrick Marleau. Kadri alleviates some of the pressure on the Matthews line, which helps facilitate them going out and wrecking shit. If he’s really ready to play, this is a major plus for the team.

The defence was a tire fire against Vegas, there’s no other way to say it. Poor Martin Marincin got dinged for a -2 on the evening; while you can debate how much fault he had for those goals, that is not going to help him in his efforts to hold a job. Connor Carrick has struggled to win the confidence of Mike Babcock, and Roman Polak has driven a considerable segment of Leafs Twitter insane. Rough times on the right side, but the change up isn’t unexpected.

The Leafs really, really need to figure out a second pairing that can work behind Rielly-Hainsey, and thus far that has not been happening either with or without Nikita Zaitsev. The Leafs’ chances get a lot better if their lower pairs can turn in a good performance tonight.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Forward Lines

Vladislav Namestnikov - Steven Stamkos - Nikita Kucherov

Ondrej Palat - Brayden Point - Tyler Johnson

Alex Killorn - Yanni Gourde - Cory Conacher

Chris Kunitz - Cedric Paquette - J.T. Brown

Defence Pairings

Victor Hedman - Jake Dotchin

Mikhail Sergachev - Dan Girardi

Brayden Coburn - Andrej Sustr

Goaltenders

Andrei Vasilevskiy

Louis Domingue

The fact that the Lightning can put two Hart-calibre players together on one line is just goddamn unfair. Nikita Kucherov has a strong argument that he was the best player in hockey in the calendar year 2017, and Steven Stamkos is second only to Alex Ovechkin in goals per game (min. 2 GP) over the last seven seasons. Vlad Namestnikov, the less-heralded member of the Bolts’ top line, excels in transition play and is stealthily on pace for 71 points. Yowza.

The Bolts’ second line would be a first line on many teams; Brayden Point went 79th overall in 2014 and would probably go top ten in a redraft. Tampa’s bottom six is merely competent (did y’all realize Chris Kunitz was still playing?) so expect them to clown us for four goals because that’s how the irony gods do you. The Leafs would have a chance to beat the Lightning on forward depth because their third line is significantly better than Tampa’s if Kadri is there to do the heavy lifting.

The Tampa defence is missing Anton Stralman, but Hedman is a top-five defenceman in the NHL and Mikhail Sergachev looks like he’s going to be a 1D before long. Jake Dotchin will probably try to injure our players because that’s what he does.

Look, Tampa Bay is better than we are, straight up—they’re almost the only team in the NHL where that’s clearly true across the board. But with Matthews and Andersen we’ve got a puncher’s chance against even them.

Go Leafs Go!