Better Atlantic Playoff Matchup

The Leafs have been among the top of the league for the entirety of this season and are bound to make the playoffs. Right now, according to moneypuck.com, they have a 95.01% chance to make the postseason. For the most part, this team has been what we’ve expected of them and some. Although they’ve been on a little bit of a slide, they’re still on pace for over 110 points in what is arguably the toughest division in the NHL (Toronto, Boston, Tampa, Montreal and Buffalo all have more than 50 points).  

Due to the strength within their division, the Leafs won’t be able to skip over some difficult matchups when it comes to playoff time. Both the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning are destined to find their way into the playoffs which makes for at least one very tough matchup for the Leafs. A team with such high expectations will certainly be looking to make the jump from a great team to contenders and will need to overcome past playoff woes to do so.

In the past week, we’ve seen the Leafs play the Bruins and Lightning which gives a little bit of what is likely to come in April and May. So, the question is: who is the better playoff matchup, Boston or Tampa?

Is It Boston?

In terms of today’s NHL, the Big Bad Bruins live up to their name. While they do have a lot of talented skill guys, they’re still one of the grittier teams in the league. When it comes to size, they have six guys over 6’2 and 210 lbs. Even the guys who aren’t the biggest (Marchand, David Krejci and Noel Acciari) are always doing the dirty work and getting under guy’s skin. Just look at their penalty mins per game (2nd most in the league). Unfortunately, the Leafs don’t play that brand of hockey. They aren’t the biggest and are far from the toughest and when they try to rely on physicality, they generally don’t succeed. Five guys are over 210 lbs and the guys who are don’t generally throw their body around the way they maybe should.

In the four games played against Boston, the Leafs have a 1-3 record despite outplaying or playing them evenly for three of the four. According to Stattrick.com, in these four games the Leafs were able to get 31, 36, 33 and 28 (128 total) scoring chances and 10, 15, 16 and 20 (61 total) high danger chances. Boston, on the other hand, was able to get 32, 42, 29 and 20 (123 total) and 8, 20, 12 and 9 (49 total) high danger chances.

Here are the shot charts for the four games:

Nov 10

Courtesy of Hockey Reference

Courtesy of Hockey Reference

Nov 26

Courtesy of Hockey Reference

Courtesy of Hockey Reference

Dec 8

Courtesy of Hockey Reference

Courtesy of Hockey Reference

Jan 12

Courtesy of Hockey Reference

Courtesy of Hockey Reference

As you can see with the charts and the types of shots, the Leafs are getting to where they want against this Bruins team but they just aren’t finishing. With that being said, the Leafs goaltending has been shaky and if Andersen continues to battle injury (only played two of these games) they’ll have a much harder time winning these types of contests.

What About Tampa?

Just like the Leafs, the Lightning are an extremely fast and skilled team. Instead of wearing you down with big hits and battles they’ll beat you with quick team movement. Although Tampa is the best team in the league by a huge margin, their style of play is beneficial to the Leafs. They can exploit the similar team construct and perform the way that suits them the best, fast and skilled.

In two games against the Lighting, the Leafs have a record of 1-1. In the game they lost, the Leafs were dominant putting up 49 shots, 39 scoring chances and 21 high danger chances while posing a 62.8% Corsi for %. In the winning matchup, they put together a total team effort to go along with a fantastic performance from Frederik Andersen who stopped 36 shots. With fewer shots (31) the Leafs were able to put together a lot of scoring chances (37) and high danger chances (15).

Here’s what the shot charts look like for both games:

Dec 13

Courtesy of Hockey Reference

Courtesy of Hockey Reference

Jan 17

Courtesy of Hockey Reference

Courtesy of Hockey Reference

As with the Leafs, Tampa Bay has had playoff struggles of their own, although it’s hard to call game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals “struggling”. None the less, they haven’t lived up to their high expectations despite their immense talent. Having another team having to overcome hurdles of their own will be a bit of a confidence booster heading into the series (goes both ways).

I’d Take Tampa

If you’re looking strictly at the numbers, you’d think I’m crazier than Norman Bates. Yes, they lead the league in just about every important statistic (points, wins, PP%, goals for, differential, etc), but the way the Lightning play is much easier for the Leafs to combat. The Leafs have been in a dry spell as of late but they were still able to pick themselves up for a win over the league leaders this week. Their powerplay, which everyone thought was going to take the world by storm, hasn’t been performing up to par which is okay as Tampa Bay doesn’t take a whole lot of penalties (even though the PP will get going again). Looking past the powerplay, the Leafs are tied in first (with Tampa) in goals for at even strength and have fewer goals against.

This season, the Lightning have the best top three or four offensive unit in the league with Kucherov and Point leading the way while Stamkos is going to glide to another 90-point season. With a top six of Matthews, Tavares, Marner, Nylander, Kapanen and Kadri matching lines shouldn’t be troublesome. Even if it is against Tampa.

Boston always seems to give Toronto a difficult time and that has stayed true for this season, even with all of the injuries they’ve suffered. On top of that, the Bruins know how to win; they have four guys on their team who were part of the 2011 Stanley Cup win and have been in and around the playoffs ever since. No one on Tampa’s roster has won a cup and they have one of the younger teams in the league. Looking at the history of sports, inexperience and fatigue are bound to play a role in their playoff run.

The main reason for the decision is that it just makes more sense to play against a team that warrants for your style of play. The Leafs look more put together and confident when playing a more up-tempo game which Tampa Bay will surely bring to the table. If this young Leafs team starts peaking at the right time, you’re not going to want to see them grinding out wins instead of flying into the next round.