The Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning meet again in the playoffs after last year’s seven-game series. The Lightning were able to sneak past the Leafs 2-1 in Game 7 to advance, eventually going on to lose the Stanley Cup Final to the Colorado Avalanche. The Leafs are looking to avoid another first-round exit, which would be their seventh straight.
This may be one of the most important series for the Maple Leafs in franchise history. Another first-round exit and you’ve got to think Toronto will consider breaking up this core to some extent. Auston Matthews hasn’t missed the playoffs in his NHL career yet has very little to show for it. The Leafs were very aggressive at the deadline, acquiring Ryan O’Reilly, Jake McCabe, Erik Gustafsson and Sam Lafferty. Rookie Matthew Knies is also expected to play after finishing his season for the University of Minnesota. This is as stacked a Leafs roster as we’ve seen the past few seasons.
This is perhaps the weakest Lightning team in recent memory, yet they’ll enter the postseason with hopes of a fourth straight Stanley Cup Final berth. The Lightning are very much built for the postseason but rely too heavily on two things: Andrei Vasilevskiy and the power play. If either falters, it could be the Maple Leafs coming out on top this season. Tampa Bay is top-heavy with the trio of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point. Victor Hedman still anchors the defense and Mikhail Sergachev should be ready to contribute again. Someone else on the roster is going to need to step up for the Bolts to advance. Last season, it was Ondrej Palat and Corey Perry. Ryan McDonagh was also around to solidify the blue line. This year not having Palat and McD could hurt more.
2023 NHL Playoffs: Maple Leafs vs. Lightning odds
The Leafs are favored in this series with home-ice advantage. This does feel like the year the Maple Leafs finally get over the hump. While the Lightning are the Lightning and have advanced to the Cup three straight seasons, this isn’t the same team. If Toronto’s goaltending can hold up, the Leafs matchup better against the Lightning defense. If the Bolts can figure out things on defense, leaning on Vasilevskiy is a path to victory. If any goalie can steal a game or two, it’s him. Leadership at the top has always been an issue for the Leafs. Now they have Ryan O’Reilly to make it essentially four captains on the roster (Matthews, Tavares, ROR, Mark Giordano). Something’s gotta give, so this feels like the year the Leafs make it out.