By Michael Wax
The Stanley Cup Playoffs are upon us, and for the first time in history, the Tampa Bay Lightning will be taking on the Toronto Maple Leafs in a playoff series. For the Lightning, it’s an opportunity to start a journey towards history, as they try to become the first team since the mid-80s Islanders to win three Stanley Cups in a row. For the Maple Leafs, they’ll try to exorcise their playoff demons and reach the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2004. While an in-depth review of the series will be done on our YouTube channel, this article will look at four potential questions for the first round.
What if Brayden Point Can’t Go?
Over the past two postseasons, Brayden Point has established himself as the greatest goal scorer in Lightning postseason history. Point put up 14 goals during the 2019-20 postseason, breaking the previous franchise record of goals in a single postseason in the process (Tyler Johnson, 13 in 2014-15). Point then duplicated his production the very next year, scoring 14 goals and becoming a part of history by scoring goals in nine consecutive playoff games. This year, things might be different.
Point has been in and out of the lineup since the last time these two teams meet on April 21. The Lightning handled Toronto just fine without their first-line center, but Point has not looked like himself since then. Point even sat out game 82, leaving his status up in the air for game one of this series. If he can’t go, the Lightning will need to dig a little deeper to replace his contributions.
How Do You Neutralize Auston Matthews?
Maple Leafs’ superstar Auston Matthews just put together one of the greatest goalscoring seasons of the 21st century, registering 60 goals in just 73 games played. Recently, he's been dealing with an injury that, much like Brayden Point, has put him in and out of the lineup. That injury hasn’t stopped him from scoring, and creates an interesting dynamic for the Lightning come game one: how do you stop him?
The Lightning could match up the Leafs’ top line with their own and see who can score more. They could also deploy a line combination with both Cirelli and Point on it (their two best defensive forwards). It’s a question that will test Jon Cooper’s coaching ability because he’s never faced someone quite like Auston Matthews before.
Which Depth Forwards Step Up for Tampa?
Compared to the last two postseasons, the Lightning's bottom-six looks wildly different. Gone are the days of the Goodrow-Gourde-Coleman line, and in its place stands a line that consists of a former Lightning prospect (Ross Colton) and two fresh faces recently acquired at the deadline (Nick Paul, Brandon Hagel). While Pat Maroon remains stapled to the 4th line, he's now joined by two other veterans (Pierre-Édouard Bellemare, Corey Perry).
When looking at the last two postseasons for Tampa, it's easy to see that the stars have been the ones to take over when the games matter most. Gourde and Coleman led the way in depth scoring both postseasons but understood their roles as third-line pests. Hagel-Colton-Paul should be able to do the same. The fourth line has a lot more firepower than in previous years with the addition of Perry,
Is Andrei Vasilevskiy Fresh?
The short answer to this question is no. Vasilevskiy has played a lot of hockey over his career, and two deep playoff runs have certainly not helped. Vasilevskiy played in 63 games this year, the second-most he’s ever played in a season, and we saw diminished results from the Big Cat. Though he led the league in wins for the 5th season in a row, he only put up a .916 save percentage in his 63 appearances. The advanced numbers show that Vasilevskiy was still strong but playing this many games certainly must have taken its toll on one of the games’ greatest goalies. Vasilevskiy is coming into these playoffs with a very hit-or-miss game log, bouncing between a save percentage of over .945 and under .900 in these games. The Lightning will only go as far as Andrei Vasilevskiy takes them, so hopefully, he’s ready to go by game one.
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