The stakes are almost unimaginable.
It's the team with the most intense pressure to advance beyond the first round, perhaps ever, versus the red-hot, two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. Whichever way it goes in a stark contrast between angst and swagger, hunger and taxation, and inexperience and sophistication, the result from the first-round series between two of the three most successful regular-season teams over the last half decade will dictate how the rest of the Stanley Cup Playoffs play out.
First-round series quite literally don't come bigger than the Toronto Maple Leafs versus Tampa Bay Lightning. We've been waiting on this; it should be worth it.
Toronto has left no stone unturned preparing for this moment. It's become old hat, but Kyle Dubas has once again done incredible work around the weight of the salary cap, assembling the most successful team in the franchise's more-than-century-old history. Michael Bunting, David Kampf, Ondrej Kase, Mark Giordano and Ilya Lyubushkin have been outstanding cost-effective additions. Ilya Mikheyev, Pierre Engvall and Timothy Liljegren suddenly carry loads of influence. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are two of the best players on Earth, and form maybe the best partnership on it.
This team is as top-end talented and as deep as it ever has been at virtually every position — save for the goaltenders. It's really only the situation in net which can be questioned, though I suppose one could preemptively quibble with the fact that Dubas has left that door potentially ajar.
The same sort of plaudits are due on the opposite side — albeit the circumstances are far different. With Stanley Cup rings for each fourth finger, Julien BriseBois clearly has license to chase another with this core by any means necessary. He exercised that privilege at the deadline, spending two first-round selections in an effort to rebuild the third line lost through free agency and expansion after the Lightning repeated as champions. It was a heavy price, but it's possible he replenished much of what was lost in the meaty middle by bringing in Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul to slot between an untouched top six and a menacing fourth line.
Even despite the Leafs clearly improving their roster and the Bolts looking to resist the realities associated with making concessions with theirs, Toronto is still the team saddled with more questions entering the series. Matthews was in and out of the lineup down the stretch. Bunting has picked up an injury, too, sending the first line into flux. Jake Muzzin may not be able to hold up. Jack Campbell could be at his best and still not measure up half as much to his counterpart, Andrei Vasilevskiy.
It is the definition of high risk, high reward for the Maple Leafs, who are in some ways being challenged to reverse engineer a typical path through the playoffs. The world just may be their oyster if they can overcome a hurdle that is part psychology, part the realities of locking horns with the best team in the history of the salary cap.
What have you done for me lately?
It's hard to ignore what the Lightning have shown in the last week or so. Embarrassing the Leafs on the scoreboard and maybe more devastatingly in the on-ice warfare in an 8-1 drubbing before following it up with a victory over the Presidents' Trophy winners and state-rival Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay provided a reminder that it wasn't prepared to fade into the darkness after back-to-back championships.
As much as the victory over the Leafs in particular should do something for Tampa's morale, it might not have been the worst thing for Toronto, either. Clearly it provided the coach with some real-world examples from a video standpoint, but more importantly it was a reminder of the Leafs' limitations. Toronto has to do all it can to stop the Lightning from dragging this game into the muck — a position its opponents are far more equipped to derive success from.
Instead, the Leafs should be looking to recreate the conditions that saw them soundly defeat the Lightning only 17 days prior. Skate. Attack. Defend. Win shifts. Don't get sucked in. When the Leafs keep it inside the whistles they are at their best.
The Maple Leafs will win if...
The best players in the series are the best players in the series. Everyone understands the shortcomings in previous postseasons for Matthews and Marner, and after this season everyone understands what this partnership has within its capabilities. They formed the single-most dominant tandem in the NHL when at their best this season, and an entity that can swing the direction of any series — even against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.
The Lightning will win if...
The series goes deep. In moments of desperation, Tampa Bay has routinely come through while the Maple Leafs have exclusively fallen flat. The Lightning's ability to take on different shapes and adapt to the situation at hand is really their distinct advantage in the series and against anyone.
Steven Stamkos versus the Leafs in a postseason series has been a long time coming. Tampa's captain is, much like his team, in an advantageous position entering the long-awaited matchup given he's had his moment in the sun and is now competing with house money. But what makes him a potential game-changer in the matchup is as simple as the form he's shown down the stretch of the season. A minimum three points in a record five straight games, Stamkos was the hottest point producer in the NHL over the last month, leading the league with 33 points in April.
The Fernando Pisani Trophy (Unsung Hero)
One great sign for the Leafs is that there's a reasonably long list to choose from when selecting potential impact players. Engvall is one of them. If it is Engvall across from William Nylander on a hybrid third line, Engvall will be the connective tissue between important defensive contributions and the counterattack dynamic that exists between the wingers. Engvall has become an exceedingly valuable player for Keefe.
I was on the record with a Leafs pick under two conditions: that Campbell and Matthews restore their form and dominance, respectively. It seems they've done that. But I've got cold feet. Lightning win this in seven.
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