Toronto Maple Leafs @ Tampa Bay Lightning
07:00 PM at Amalie Arena
Watch on: TBS, CBC, TVAS, SN, BSSUN
The Leafs lead the series three games to two and have two more tries at closing out this first-round series. As was clear last night, most series in this year's first round are tough contests going to six or seven games to solve.
Five games is a small amount of hockey. It's a concentrated stretch of intensity when it's in the playoffs where it's one team vs another game after game, but it's still a very small number.
However, as small and prone to the big effects of chance that number is, it's more reliable than emotion fuelled memory. Everything I feel and think about this series so far is heavily influenced by when goals were scored – or weren't scored. Time for some reality check.
The Lightning have a problem, and it's defence depth. Victor Hedman, who missed part of Game 1 and all of Game 2 is clearly not healthy, and yet, he's their top minute man in subsequent games. Mikhail Sergachev is the overall minute leader, and Darren Reddysh is a surprising second. But Zach Bogosian barely plays, and Ian Cole has been played too much out of necessity. Hedman is, in my books, the best defender in the NHL and all talk of Erik Karlsson and his points is just absurd. But when Hedman is not on the ice, the Lightning become an ordinary team.
Mark Masters via Daily Faceoff - from the last game
Steven Stamkos - Brayden Point - Nikita Kucherov
Brandon Hagel - Anthony Cirelli - Alex Killorn
Ross Colton - Nick Paul - Michael Eyssimont
Patrick Maroon - Pierre-Édouard Bellemare - Corey Perry
Victor Hedman - Nicklaus Perbix
Mikhail Sergachev - Darren Raddysh
Ian Cole - Zach Bogosian
I never know when I write these up what order to use for the defence. I see reporters putting the Rielly pairing either first or third. And there's a very good reason for that. The pairing is a bit of a fake. This is not a new thing for the way Sheldon Keefe arranges his team, but people keep falling for it. The split is about 75-25 in Rielly's minutes with and without Schenn.
The top played defenders at five-on-five are Jake McCabe, Morgan Rielly and TJ Brodie. Schenn has actually played more than Holl by a bit, but the icetime is grouped up tighter for the Leafs defence than the Lightning. Giordano - Holl is really the third pair.
Keefe has some decisions to make on lines with Michael Bunting having served his bonus suspension, and one big problem to solve: Ryan O'Reilly has been underwater so deep he has to play in scuba gear.
I have no idea what those are, but Mark Giordano and Matthew Knies were at optional skate. The theory is that Holl will come out for Timothy Liljegren, so fine, let's start there. Here's my guess. What's yours?
Calle Järnkrok - Auston Matthews - William Nylander
Alex Kerfoot - John Tavares - Mitch Marner
Michael Bunting - Ryan O'Reilly - Noel Acciari
Matthew Knies - David Kämpf - Sam Lafferty
Morgan Rielly - Luke Schenn
Jake McCabe - TJ Brodie
Mark Giordano - Timothy Liljegren
The Leafs have a problem. No, it's not what you think. It's this:
This is the series to date at all-situations. There's more blue than orange, that's undeniable. The Lightning have the puck more, and they waste a lot of that possession on bad shots from bad locations. Maybe those point shots and junk from the outer edges create some rebounds and help a little, but it's an inefficient and labour-intensive way to generate offence.
It reminds me powerfully of the last period of Mike Babcock's tenure as coach of the Leafs. I know that memory of the Leafs in those games is coloured by the baying hounds wanting him fired for not being the type of person they liked. I know it's overwritten by that years-old story about Mitch Marner, and turned sour by all the games the Leafs lost as they opened that season. But the truth is, the Leafs had massively high rates of quality offence in those games. But their heatmap looked a lot like Tampa's. The only time the Leafs seemed to be good at both ends of the ice, however, was when Jake Muzzin was playing (with Auston Matthews). Those days are long gone for the Leafs. That team would already be beaten.
Yes, the Lightning have been the possession kings in this series. But to look at CF % and only that and never deeper and to then call the Leafs bad is, to use the technical term, bullshit.
The Lightning are hard to play against, because they're supposed to be. They didn't get in the playoffs by accident. They aren't the damn Winnipeg Jets with just a goalie, and nothing else. But they aren't the greatest team to ever play the sport. Neither, it turns out, are the Boston Bruins with all their records. The Lightning are particularly hard for the Leafs because they have made it excruciatingly difficult to get an offensive cycle going. It is painful to watch and it gets hard to see clearly all the times that it's not true.
Tampa are hard to put down. But if the lesson taken from Game 5 wasn't that the Leafs will never stop trying with everything they have, then you watched a different game to me.
I can't tell you who will win. I just want to see that same Leafs team that threw themselves with all they had against the determination of the Lightning to not get beat out in five games.
No one on the ice wants to lose, that's the only thing I know.
Go Leafs Go - We Can Do Hard Things!