I knew this series was going to come eventually. As a staff writer for both Pension Plan Puppets and Raw Charge, it’s been both awesome and terrible to cheer for the Maple Leafs and Lightning these past few years. Most of the awesome goes in the Tampa direction, most of the terrible in the Leafs direction when it comes to the playoffs. I thought this eventual series where my two hockey fandoms crossed would be in the second round sometime in the past four years, but it turns out it’ll be in the first round this year.
I really hope I don’t look narcissistic, but here is myself, a Leafs fan, interviewing myself, a Lightning fan, about the upcoming Leafs vs. Lightning series. Thanks to TomK421 and JerseyLeaf in the comments for some additional questions after I broke my brain.
And I wrote the other version over at Raw Charge, so go check it out!
How are Lightning fans feeling ahead of the series?
There’s been a lot of talk about the playoff probabilities posted by various sources this past weekend. All of them have the Leafs as strong favourites, which is ticking off a lot of people. There are reasons for it, namely all those models only look at this season and just try to be objective, leaving the narrativizing to others. Somehow, the narrative has snuck towards “big media doesn’t believe in us” or “models are useless,” both of which are unsurprising. The fans who get it brush it off.
In terms of real stuff, Bolts fans know the Leafs are going to be a tough out, but they know their team can win series (specifically four in a row, twice) and they’re confident about that. They’ve beaten tough teams before, I think Bolts fans see the Leafs are more-or-less like the Hurricanes or Panthers from recent years, except less chippy, which is probably very true.
What are the Lightning’s strengths?
Andrei Vasilevskiy can absolutely shut down an elimination game on the majority of nights. The Bolts can use him to win 1-0, 2-0, 2-1. It’s really impressive what he can do on such a consistent basis. He has stinkers, that’s for sure, but he comes back even better.
Point and Kucherov got the Lightning rolling in their first Cup run and they were unstoppable for the first two rounds. That’s what superstars can do for a month. Now, Stamkos is back and he’s got 100-point season to show for it. That’s three guys that can carry the offense for the team.
The defense is really solid, led by Hedman and McDonagh. Sergachev is good offensively (and kinda violent defensively), and Erik Cernak is very good defensively. Jan Rutta plays a complimentary partner to Hedman well and has for years.
What are the Lightning’s weaknesses?
Pretty much everyone else I didn’t mention in the strengths is a weakness. The Lightning’s forward depth is famously not as strong as it used to be, and the bottom half of the defense is pretty suspect at times.
All year long the Lightning have struggled to find guys after their obvious stars, Palat, and Killorn. After Killorn (yeah, including Cirelli) there’s a big drop off in driving-force talent. They moved out Joseph, Raddysh, and Katchouk at the deadline because they couldn’t cut it in meaningful roles (on a lesser team Joseph has been great), and brought in Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel. Paul has produced, but Hagel has been under the ire of fans since shortly after he started playing. He hasn’t settled in, and hasn’t met the standards of Blake Coleman.
The Bolts have struggled to find complimentary players to fill out their top lines and create a third line that can play meaningful minutes. Any good third line often has to get stripped for parts when someone on the second line playing too high gets overwhelmed. Often that’s Cirelli.
All of that is the say the Leafs have a massive advantage after the stars in terms of their complimentary players and third line. Whether that plays a significant part in this series is another topic of conversation, but it’s huge for Toronto to have Kaše, Kämpf, Engvall, and Mikheyev.
These next four are from JerseyLeaf, so thank you for the questions:
How do you enjoy rounds 2-4 in the playoffs?
Leading games is really fun, because you’re not stressed about every play. You can enjoy the highlights more. We loved posting highlight articles at RC when games felt kind of comfortable. We almost felt bad playing the Hurricanes at the end because their game completely fell apart, same with the Islanders after the third game, Dallas after the first game or so, and the Habs the entire time. Because of the Lightning’s depth in those years, they weren’t weakened once the game of attrition started. Depth is so key, both early and late.
Which TB player do you (openly? secretly?) wish would see far less icetime?
To be completely honest, Cirelli? He doesn’t have much offense, can’t cut it in the top-six, but at the same time you think he has more potential than the third line. I think when changes come, it’ll be him. As for in each individual game, I think Sergachev is better when he’s given less to do, except on the power play. Unfortunately, they need to rely on him and Cirelli because they don’t have the depth.
Cal Foote is a replacement level player, but Cooper gives him that sort of ice time already.
What do you enjoy the most/least about Jon Cooper’s coaching style?
I most enjoy seeing the adjustments he can find and implement between periods. He does it better than anyone else. The issues I see in the Bolts game don’t take that long to get fixed. Often, the solution is to slow the game down and focus on defense and counter attacks, at least this season. In 2019 or 2020 it was go go go all-out attack.
Which player would Tampa miss the most if they (I’m not wishing an injury on anybody, so) happened to get locked in their hotel room and missed a game?
Hard to ignore Vasilevskiy, but I think that’s an easy answer. I’ll say Hedman because he just does everything all at once for the team. They have McDonagh who can take on more defensively, and Sergachev offensively, but they really just run four defensemen in those games. Again, lack of depth. It’s easier to not play with a star forward because there are a few of them and they can all work well on their own.
From TomK421, who asked a great and simple question:
What is the easiest way to beat you?
At home, out-match the Lightning forward lines with the third line. Don’t let the Leafs fourth line get out-worked by the Lightning fourth line, because Perry can score some goals.
Playing a high-paced game is not what the Lightning are great at anymore. Most of the games I’ve seen from them this year they were able to get by when the game was slower. Counterattacks and rushes notwithstanding. They’ll take penalties when they’re hemmed in, and the penalty kill is beatable. The Leafs will get bad calls by comparison, but honestly the best thing for the players to do is put their heads down, kill the penalties, score some shorties, and move on. It’s not worth arguing.