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Can The Leafs Avoid Playoff Déjà vu All Over Again??

March 28, 2023, 4:47 PM ET [232 Comments]
Mike Augello
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The Toronto Maple Leafs are on a collision course with the Tampa Bay Lightning in less than three weeks and unless things change dramatically over the next nine games, the Leafs will have home-ice advantage, with the series opening in Toronto on April 17th or 18th, and if it comes down to it a series-deciding Game 7 at Scotiabank Arena.

That was the case last May when the two clubs met in a topsy-turvy first-round series. Toronto were shot out of a cannon in Game 1, winning 5-0 with the only blemish being Kyle Clifford’s one-game suspension for hitting Ross Colton from behind. Game 2 saw the Lightning bounce back taking advantage of Toronto’s undisciplined play with three power-play goals in a 5-3, setting the tone for the rest of the series.

The Leafs stole back home ice with a great road performance in a 5-2 victory at Amalie Arena in Game 3 and were a complete no-show in a 7-3 loss in Game 4. Toronto got off the mat in Game 5, coming back from an early deficit to win 4-3 on a late Auston Matthews goal, but with a chance to avoid a deciding game as they had against Boston in 2019 and Montreal in 2021, the Leafs could not put their opponent away, losing 4-3 in overtime, and as we know all too well, in the deciding game it was the combination of Nick Paul scoring twice and Andrei Vasilevskiy being Andrei Vasilevskiy that ended Toronto’s season.

11 months later, the Leafs are deeper up front after adding Calle Jarnkrok and Zach Aston-Reese last summer and Ryan O’Reilly, Sam Lafferty, and Noel Acciari at the deadline, on defense with the late-season additions of Jake McCabe and Luke Schenn, and their goaltending is decidedly better with the tandem of Ilya Samsonov and Matt Murray than with Jack Campbell.

By all accounts, Tampa is weaker with the departure of Ondrej Palat up front and on defense with Ryan McDonagh being dispatched to Nashville for cap issues, but it would be hard to find many prognosticators that would pick Toronto to win the series, and that is because the core group of Tampa (Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Point, Vasilevskiy, and Victor Hedman) have proven over and over the last three years that they can come through in the clutch when it is needed, and the Leafs core group has not.

Many looking at Toronto are obsessing about their goaltending going into the series against the Lightning, but they were able to get to Game 7 with Campbell, who was statistically below average after two months of stellar All-Star level play. The Leafs will need Murray or Samsonov or likely both to make a big save here or there, and will need help from secondary sources like O’Reilly, Mark Giordano, and Jarnkrok to win, but in the end, the margin of victory is going to come down whether Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander, and Morgan Rielly can elevate their play and be better than the Tampa core for Toronto.

Unfortunately, we will have to watch eight or nine meaningless games to get to what everyone has been waiting for and to find out the answer to our questions.


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