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Leafs Playoff Preview; Believe

This may be the opportunity of a lifetime. The only question is, do you believe?

Here we go again.

As we’ve known for a while, the Toronto Maple Leafs will play the Tampa Bay Lightning in round one of the playoffs for the second year in a row. How will they respond? Will they rise to the occasion against a team looking to establish a modern dynasty? Or will they choke again?

Game 1 is Tuesday, April 18th at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.

In the regular season, the Leafs were the better team. They had an incredible 50-21-11 record with a +57 goal differential to the Lightning’s 46-30-6 and differential of +27. Of course, home-ice advantage matters, but at the end of the day the regular season standings don’t. It’s the little habits, consistent systems, and overall team commitment to play the right way that makes all the difference in the postseason.

Special teams will play a key role in this series. The Leafs ran the second-best power play in the league at 26% with the Lightning trailing close behind in third at 25.4%. Nearly dead even. The Leafs had the league's 12th-best penalty kill with 81.9 % while Tampa was 15th with  79.7%.

Both teams took an average of 32 shots per game. The Leafs did a better job at limiting shots against, averaging just 29.5 per game to the Lightning’s 31.5.

The Leafs ranked 7th in goals against per game, giving up an average of 2.68 to the Lightning’s 3.07. However, the Lightning beat the Leafs in goals-for-per-game, with 3.41 to the Leafs’ 3.39.

In order to win the Leafs will need to get their power play in order. They scored just four times on 28 opportunities in last year's series for a 14% whereas the Lightning took fewer penalties, and capitalized more often with 7 powerplay goals on 33 opportunities for a 21%.

In the stats department, the Leafs have a slight advantage over the Lightning this year. However, in my opinion, it all comes down to confidence.

Heading into last year’s series, there was no more confident team than the Tampa Bay Lightning. They were coming off back-to-back cup wins and had won eight consecutive playoff series, whereas the Leafs had yet to win one in twenty years.

Through the calm and trusting nature of head coach Jon Cooper, the experienced hands on the wheel in captain Steven Stamkos, and the world’s best goaltender in Andre Vasilevsky in net, the Lightning truly believed they could win, and they did.

The Leafs, while hopeful, saw their faith shaken with every hit, every save, and every shot the Lightning blocked. They watched as the series slipped through their fingers, culminating in a two-goal performance by Nick Paul in game 7.

At the end of the day, the Leafs have to believe they can win. They have to believe in their group, believe in their potential, and when things go south, believe they can come back. Against a Lightning team coming off their first series loss to the Avalanche in two years, this may be the opportunity of a lifetime.

The only question is, do you believe?

Dave Felsbourg

Sunday, April 16, 2023

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