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Gameday: Maple Leafs @ Lightning

It’s time for the annual nice, relaxing Florida road trip in the spring.

NHL: FEB 25 Maple Leafs at Lightning Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Maple Leafs @ Tampa Bay Lightning
7:30 pm on Sportsnet, NHLN, TVAS, BSSUN

Note the start time. It’s important Monday go on as long as possible.

In the before time, the schedule usually had a Leafs’ road trip to Florida every year about this time. Everyone else in Ontario was heading to Florida for March break, why not the Leafs? This year’s schedule is a bit late for March break but it will still be a little warmer in Tampa than it is in Toronto.

The final month of the season is jam-packed with one game for every two days left, and the Leafs are going to finish tired. There’s no real way around that. They have a lot of players injured, they need to practice with the new players, and it’s impossible to just dial back and relax too much.

But Florida roadies in the spring will always remind me of the famous fishing trip.

It was 2017, the Leafs were about to somewhat accidentally make the playoffs, and everyone was young (Marner looks 16 there) and full of energy and the carrying on over this fishing trip was so annoying at the time. Yes, yes indeed, it is true the Leafs played very badly the next day against the Panthers. No you can’t claim causation.

It’s a known fact that sunburn causes you to, whaa whaa whaaa.

I reread just one article from that time and it’s a doozy:

It unironically uses the terms “optics” and “talking point” and “shenanigans” and also trots out that old dodge of: I’m not saying the Leafs lost because of this fishing trip, but people will think it, so it’s okay I’m channeling the Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc Wikipedia article. This sort of thing reads even worse after years of people learning through the gig economy or working from home what never not working really feels like.

This season, no one has time for fishing and it is a lot like never not working for the Maple Leafs. It’s not a race to game 82, it’s a marathon slog through the mud. I saw a headline today that the Leafs “must” be better defensively in these games, and you know, they really don’t have to be. We’d like them to be, but they are playing two-men short on defence and tinkering with a rookie on the fourth line all while trying to goad William Nylander into who he was last season.

Us

Yesterday’s practice lines from David Alter:

Michael Bunting - Auston Matthews - Mitch Marner
Ilya Mikheyev - John Tavares - Alexander Kerfoot
Nick Abruzzese - David Kämpf - Pierre Engvall
Kyle Clifford - Colin Blackwell - Wayne Simmonds

Morgan Rielly - Ilya Lyubushkin
TJ Brodie - Justin Holl
Mark Giordano - Timothy Liljegren

Jack Campbell
Erik Källgren

If Nylander can’t play, that should be the lineup. If he can, you would expect the dominoes to knock Clifford off the bottom. Keefe has said it’s a game-time decision. Jake Muzzin might play tomorrow, but not today.

Them

Tampa played a back-to-back at home on Friday and Saturday, losing in a shootout to Montréal is the second one. Do I need to mention that Brian Elliott was in net and he won’t be tonight?

Steven Stamkos - Brayden Point - Nikita Kucherov
Ondrej Palat - Anthony Cirelli - Alex Killorn
Brandon Hagel - Nick Paul - Ross Colton
Patrick Maroon - Pierre-Édouard Bellemare - Corey Perry

Victor Hedman - Jan Rutta
Mikhail Sergachev - Erik Cernak
Zach Bogosian - Cal Foote

Andrei Vasilevskiy
Brian Elliott

The Game

You know the Leafs, or you should by now. They win by generating masses of offence of high quality and they score a lot of goals because of it. They have the puck most of the time, and their best defence is a quick zone exit.

The Lightning used to be very similar, but they’ve slowed things down a little over the years, and conceded some loss of offence — the days of that amazing second line of Palat, Johnson and Kucherov insulated by the top line centred by Stamkos are long over. To compensate, they’ve bulked up on depth and defence. But their best player has to still be their best player for them to be the team that rolled to the cup last year.

In every category at five-on-five, the Lightning are very, very good, but just a little bit below the Leafs, top 10, not top five. The exception is Expected Goals Against, where they are basically tied and in the top 10 together.

However, it looks like the Leafs execute their defense with less skill, so they allow goals over expected in ways that aren’t just poor goalie performance. And they also have very poor goalie performance a lot. Separating out the defending guilt from the goalie guilt is nearly impossible, but I don’t personally believe that xGA is a perfect measure of defending. It’s just better than all the others.

What the Lightning do have is a little bit more raw shooting talent than the Leafs. Stamkos v Matthews is basically a wash in terms of their ability to get goals above expected. The Lighting manage to vault into a tie with the Leafs in old-school Shooting % by virtue of luck and skill based on a much lower base of offensive quality.

So what about the Lightning’s best player? Put down the save percentage tables for one second and consider that two teams creating fairly equal numbers of chances against at five-on-five (the Lightning take more penalties) are getting very different goals against. The Lightning are eighth best with 192, and the Leafs are right in the mediocre middle at 16th with 207.

Vasilevskiy, not surprisingly, has not maintained a third year of Vezina level play non-stop, but he’s been better than every single Leafs goalie, and most of the rest of the league too. If his play has opened the door to the Leafs and the Panters, it’s barely a crack, and to beat the Lightning will require relentless pressure, discipline and a lot of luck.

Recent fishing trips really don’t figure in.