The Toronto Maple Leafs are officially in the home stretch heading towards the playoffs, with the first round slated to start in just over a month.
The Atlantic division has a tight race at the top of the standings, with four of the leagues top ten teams jockeying for position. The Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins are all divisional rivals that the Toronto Maple Leafs could potentially face in the first round, and if they drop to a wild card spot it opens up a whole new world of possibilities.
The question is: which team would give the Leafs the best shot at advancing past the first round? If the playoffs started today, they Leafs would be visiting Tampa Bay for game 1. (Standing for this article prior to puck-drop Friday night, and by points percentage).
Tampa Bay Lightning
Regular Season Record: 41-18-6 (7th)
3.28 Goals per game (10th)
30.2 SOG per game (19th)
20.7% on PP (16th)
2.74 Goals against per game (7th)
29.9 SOG against per game (7th)
81.3% on PK (10th)
The Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning played two close games early in the season, splitting the two outings. The Leafs narrowly edged out Tampa Bay in the first meeting, scoring a late 3rd period goal and taking it in overtime 2-1. In the second meeting, Vasilevskiy stole the show, making 35 saves to help the Lightning secure a 5-3 victory.
The teams stats ( via NHL.com ) for Tampa Bay probably won’t blow anyone away. They are a top ten defensive team, largely thanks to having, arguably, the best defenseman in the league and the best goaltender in the league. But this Lightning team is gunning for a threepeat, and a first round exit seems unlikely for a team with this championship pedigree.
The one advantage the Leafs could have in this series would be Tampa Bay simply running out of gas. The Lightning have won two cups in a row and could be running on fumes by the time the playoffs begin. We all know that Toronto has not played nearly as many games over the last couple of seasons and they could be more hungry than the Lightning.
Tampa Bay and Toronto play one more game this season, we can call it the rubber match. on April 4th at Tampa Bay. This game will have major playoff implications, possibly determining which of these two teams can take over the second spot in the Atlantic and have home ice advantage in the first round.
Should the Toronto Maple Leafs fail to over take Tampa Bay and leap into second place they could fall into the wild card spots and play one of the two division leaders.