There is a whole flock of people who read that headline and can’t even believe how funny they think they are, rushing to the comments to peck out witticisms like “It doesn’t matter it’s the Leafs.” But this article isn’t for those people.
At this point the Leafs will almost certainly be Round 1 underdogs -- it’s true. -- whether it’s versus Tampa Bay or Boston. And given Toronto's history, it would seem the outcome of that series would be a foregone conclusion. But sports are only a sure thing until they aren’t -- until the Chicago Cubs win the World Series (or both the White and Red Sox before them), or the Philadelphia Eagles snap a 57-year drought, or the New York Rangers win in 1994, or whatever the long-but-then-broken sporting drought of your choice happens to be. The uncle-at-the-family-cookout comedians may not like it, but there’s always a chance.
The Leafs are currently second in the Atlantic Division, though it’s basically a three-way tie with Tampa and Boston right now. All three teams are within a point of each other, with the Leafs' winning percentage at .675, Tampa’s at .667, and the Bruins at .664.
The division, she’s tight.
Because of that, the Leafs are mostly likely to end up in the two or three slot, with a hotly contested divisional matchup. They could always fall into a wild card spot and get Florida or Carolina, but the odds of that still aren’t most likely.
In fact, we know the odds, thanks to Micah Blake McCurdy and HockeyViz, who factor in remaining schedules among a host of other inputs. Here are the Leafs' most likely Round 1 opponents by percentage:
So there you have it: Toronto's most likely Round 1 opponents are Boston at 31 per cent, and Tampa Bay at 29 per cent.
And guess what? According to a poll I threw on Twitter last night, that is – someone bafflingly, I thought – the way Leafs fans want it.
A whopping 76.4 per cent of Leafs fans believe either A) They’ve got a better chance at beating Boston than the two-time defending Cup Champion Lightning, or B) They’ve gotta slay the dragon before they can rescue the metaphorical princess named Stanley. (I believe that the Washington Capitals taking down the Penguins en route to winning their Cup has a lot of people believing that narrative.)
So, which opponent should the Leafs prefer, the Bruins or the Lightning?
What we’ve got today is a tale of two teams: the Lightning are in the middle of a sizable skid, having lost six of their last eight games, putting together just five wins through 12 tries in March.
Boston is the NHL’s hottest team, going 8-1-1 in their last 10, and to take it back farther, 12-2-1 in their last 15.
A lot of statistics aren’t great in small samples, but over the course of big chunks of a season they can tell us a lot about how teams truly play. Here we’ve got two useful categories for telling us who drives the bulk of shot attempts and likely goals: shot attempt percentage (good ol’ Corsi For %, or CF%) and expected goals for percentage (xGF%). We use even strength play, given that’s where the bulk of the game is played, but will get to special teams shortly.
While the Leafs are slightly better than both through the whole season to date, the Bruins have an edge on the Lightning, who show up surprisingly far down the Corsi list, behind the **double checks** New Jersey Devils.
When you start to factor in things like shot distance, and rebounds, and the other factors to make “expected goals,” the Bruins rocket up the league chart to the top. Tampa Bay just hangs inside the top 10.
Colorado being as low as Tampa doesn’t make me go “maybe the metric is useless” so much as it does make me wonder about Colorado a bit, too. You’ll notice this is a pretty accurate accounting of the good teams in the league. The bottom includes, well, the teams you’d expect to find there.
So the Bruins control the run of play, and the individual metrics on their top guys still show them as top guys (Patrice Bergeron is still disgustingly good). I don’t know if goalie Jeremy Swayman is someone who would make you feel comfortable as a fan hoping for a deep run, but go ahead and look at this guy’s statistical history. He’s been unbelievable everywhere he’s played, so maybe we shouldn’t be stunned by the numbers he’s putting together for the Bruins. Look at these save percentages.
Only 41 NHL games, but yeesh they’ve been good, wouldn’t you say?
Plus the addition of Hampus Lindholm, who his teammates referred to as “nasty” in his first game, which was a victory over *checks notes* Tampa Bay, and boy, I’d find it hard to agree with the 76.4 per cent of you who would rather play Boston, as tempting as the “dragon slaying” fairy tale narrative is. The Bruins look terrifying.
Here’s the problem: I do agree that what the Bolts have done over the past few seasons makes them more formidable, more scary, more intimidating than their numbers may show. They’re built from the back-end out, which is another well-established narrative for what makes a great hockey team. Andrei Vasilevskiy is universally acknowledged as either the best, or one of the few best, goalies in the NHL. In a league where it seems there are fewer “yes I trust THAT guy” starters, nobody ever waivers on the future Hall-of-Famer’s greatness. And their D-corps is simply a rock solid group that's won before, they’ve proven their own collective greatness, and they can do a little bit of everything – score, hit, and shut you down.
But there’s no doubt that the numbers don’t highlight the Bolts as the same team that terrorized opponents in past years. For one, they used to be an absolute scoring juggernaut.
Over the past three seasons (prior to this one) the Bolts have: won the Presidents' Trophy as the best regular season team of all time with 126 points (then lost in the first round), then won the Cup, then won the Cup. Here they are in goals per game over those years:
Goals For: 1st, 1st, 8th
So they were the best scoring team in 2018-19. They win the Cup as the best offensive team in that second season. In the third year, they dropped all the way down to eighth, but still won the Cup. Why? Well, they got more physical and focused more on defence.
Goals Against in those three years: 8th, 8th, 6th.
That shows just a small improvement, but they got even better at the deadline last season, and were the best defensive team in the NHL’s post-season, allowing under two goals against per game.
This season the Lightning are 8th in goals for, and 8th in goals against, which is just middle-of-the-pack when it comes to 16 playoff teams.
Last season in Round 1, a forgotten tidbit is that Florida actually handed it to the Lightning at 5-on-5, but the Bolts had a secret weapon in their back pocket: a rejuvenated Nikita Kucherov, who helped stake them to a ridiculously hot power play at the right time. Over the course of the regular season Tampa had the NHL’s 9th-best power play, which got red hot at the right time, going from 22.2% to 32.4% in the post-season, 3rd-best among playoff teams.
This season their power play drags along at 19.9%, which is 19th-best in the NHL. Woof.
Last season the Lightning had the fourth-best penalty kill in the regular season in the league, at 84%. They improved that by a whopping .1% in the post-season. This year they’ve dropped to 12th, at 80.5%.
For context when comparing them to the Bruins: Boston is 10th in PP% this year, same as the year before, and their PK has dropped from 2nd-best in the NHL to 8th.
But back to Tampa, by basically every metric, this year’s Lightning team is not as good as last year’s, or that of the year prior.
Now, there’s a number of cases to be made in favour of the Bolts, and all of them are our good old eye test and experience around the game. They’ve done it before, and they’ll know how to turn it on when the time is right. Peaking in March is pretty pointless. All their metrics got better in the playoffs last season, so we know they can dial it up.
The other is that they added Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel, who obviously have nothing to do with the numbers above, and both players work and compete and score goals (both have already scored for Tampa since the deadline). They make them better too, and we’ve seen deadline additions help the Lightning in the past.
A hopeful Leafs fan could wonder if the two long post-season runs have caught up to Tampa – combined with a fairly congested schedule this season – and wonder if they’re just going to be too run-down to put up another post-season run.
The grand conclusion here, for the Leafs, is holy they better have their A-game ready come Round 1, no matter if they play Tampa or Boston. They’re going to need their goaltending back on point, Mark Giordano and Jake Muzzin are going to have to give the best versions of themselves, and the weight of the world on the Big Four is going to have to end in them finally breaking through, or they may not be getting a different outcome in 2021-22. If you asked the Leafs, they’d give you what sounds like a runaround, but would be true: They have to worry about themselves, focus on doing what they do well, and control what they can control.
But full of truth serum, I’d love to know who they’d prefer to play.
If I were picking for the Leafs, the numbers would say to choose Tampa Bay, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Couldn’t. Earlier in this piece I implied it would seem crazy to pick the Bruins, but somehow picking Tampa Bay seems crazier, so I’d have to schedule round three against Boston.
The real winner here are the fans, who should be in for a treat either way. And by “the fans,” I mean fans of other teams, because I’m not sure anything I’ve written above would sound like too much “fun” for Leafs fans come early May.