Five questions before the Lightning-Leafs series

TORONTO — The Lightning’s Stanley Cup playoff series against the Maple Leafs will be one of the most anticipated matchups of the first round as the defending Cup champions face league leading scorer Auston Matthews and top offense .

Here are five questions for Tampa Bay ahead of the series, which begins Monday night at Scotiabank Arena:

Will home ice count?

Auston Matthews celebrates towards fans an April 7 game against Dallas at Scotiabank Arena. [ TONY GUTIERREZ | Associated Press ]

Starting the series in Toronto will certainly give the Maple Leafs a chance to build momentum early. A home loss, especially for a Toronto team that hasn’t won a playoff since 2004, could quickly burst the Leafs’ bubble. The pressure then sets in immediately.

Related: Did someone sound the Lightning alarm for the playoffs?

As for the Lightning, recall that Tampa Bay won its first two playoffs in 2021 as an underseed. Although winning in Toronto may prove more difficult than in Florida or Carolina. Historically speaking, nearly half of all best-of-seven series have been won by the bottom seed (66 of 135; 48.9%) in the previous 10 playoff series, not counting the 2000 bubble.

Who are the X factors for the Lightning?

Alex Killorn rounds the defenseman and beats Coyotes goaltender Ivan Prosvetov for a goal during an Oct. 28 game at Amalie Arena.
Alex Killorn rounds the defenseman and beats Coyotes goaltender Ivan Prosvetov for a goal during an Oct. 28 game at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The Lightning must own the front of the net in this series. They need to take goalie Jack Campbell out of sight and make him uncomfortable in the paint. This is where Alex Killorn and Corey Perry come in.

Killorn is coming off his best offensive regular season with a career-high 25 goals and 59 points, and he’s getting plenty of deflection and rebounding opportunities using his big body (6-foot-1, 199 pounds). Then there’s Perry, who has had a career in goal. He likely still lives on in Leafs fans’ nightmares after scoring the series-clinching goal in Game 7 of the Canadiens’ upset first-round win over Toronto a year ago.

Related: These five Maple Leafs could be a problem for the Lightning

Let’s not forget forward Ondrej Palat, who was quiet in the second half of the season but has 31 points, including 16 goals in the last two playoffs. He’s the third part of a scorching Lightning top line with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.

Which Lightning player has the potential for a breakout?

Nick Paul works to move the puck against the Maple Leafs during a game April 21 at Amalie Arena.
Nick Paul works to move the puck against the Maple Leafs during a game April 21 at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
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The Lightning traded forward Nick Paul at the deadline for times like this. General manager Julien BriseBois said his heavy game was built for the playoffs. We have seen the skill that Paul possesses. He can get on the ice quickly for a player his size (6-foot-3, 224 pounds) and has a terrific stick for a big man, even showing some fancy moves behind his back and between the legs around the fetch.

Paul is making the playoffs for the first time in his seven-year career. And it will be against the team he grew up playing for as a kid in Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto.

What is the most important special teams match?

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare celebrates his goal after beating Pittsburgh goaltender Tristan Jarry during a game March 3 at Amalie Arena.
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare celebrates his goal after beating Pittsburgh goaltender Tristan Jarry during a game March 3 at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The Lightning’s shorthanded unit will be under scrutiny against the best power-play unit in the league (Toronto led the league with a 27.3% regular-season success rate). Perhaps that’s when we’ll really find out how much the Lightning miss Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, the top two shorthanded forwards on the previous two Cup teams.

The Lightning’s penalty kick from last playoff season was terrific, with an 86.1% success rate. There are now plenty of different personnel among the forwards, from Pierre-Edouard Bellemare to trade acquisitions Brandon Hagel and Paul. Bellemare is an experienced penalty killer who maintains composure at the top. But as in the past two seasons, the key will be PK’s best defenders Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak who fill lanes and block shots – and don’t hurt themselves doing it.

At the end of the day, the best defense isn’t getting called for penalties, and the Lightning need to reduce their numbers.

Can Andrei Vasilevskiy return to the qualifiers?

Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is usually at his best during the playoffs.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is usually at his best during the playoffs. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The Lightning pounce on the back of a revived offense led by Stamkos, Kucherov and Victor Hedman, but Andrei Vasilevskiy is the backbone of the team, and victory in this series hinges on him. That doesn’t mean he has to hold the Leafs to one or two goals per game. It’s more the timing of those goals. He must avoid a flurry of objectives, and those that arrive at the beginning and end of the periods.

Related: Playoff success for Lightning begins and ends with Andrei Vasilevskiy

Does he need to stop Matthews? No, but Vasilevskiy must prevent Matthews from taking sole control of the game, like in his hat-trick against Tampa Bay on April 4. The bigger the moment, the better Vasilevskiy, and his game reaches another level in the playoffs.

• • •

the Tampa Bay Weather commemorated the Lightning’s second straight Stanley Cup title with a new hardcover coffee table book, knock twice. Order now.

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