Bruins on Boylston: Leafs or Lightning—which could be a tougher second-round competitor?

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Ryan Yau

The Bruins will face the winner of the Lightning/Maple Leafs game.

By Leo Kagan

The Boston Bruins lost in overtime to the Florida Panthers on Wednesday, with the Panthers clawing their way to the victory to live another day. 

And while it might be foolish to look too far ahead of ourselves, the Bruins are still the favorite to win one of the next two games and advance to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. If they can finish off Florida, however, who would they rather face? 

The 111-point regular season Toronto Maple Leafs, who seem poised to finally vanquish their playoff demons and win their first series since 2004? Or the battle-hardened, back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, who are looking to rally back and knock off the Leafs for a second consecutive postseason? 

Neither opponent is appealing, though the Bruins will be the favorite over both after a historic regular season. But there’s only one way to determine which is a scarier match-up for the current Stanley Cup favorites…

You guessed it, pseudoscience!

To anyone getting sick of these, I don’t care! I’m fairly confident there’s no other way to measure the scary vibes a team puts out than with my patent-pending Yikes-o-Meter. So let’s feed the data into this very real contraption and see what it spits out! 

Toronto Maple Leafs

To the surprise of quite literally everybody, the Leafs are up 3-1 against the Lightning in their first-round series. After laying an egg in an embarrassing 7-3 Game 1 loss on home ice, the Leafs rebounded, decisively claiming Game 2 by a 7-2 score, narrowly eking out a 4-3 overtime victory in Game 3, and completing a very un-Leaf-ian Game 4 comeback victory in overtime, again.

The Leafs now have three chances to get one more win out of the Lightning and finally move on to the second round for the first time in nearly two decades. But to those who are already writing their Bruins v. Leafs prediction columns, pump the brakes. As any Leafs fan born before yesterday—or Bruins fans around in 2013—can tell you, Toronto’s premier hockey club is prone to choking in the playoffs. 

If the Leafs can beat the Lightning once more in the next week—and that’s a very big if—then the Bruins should have a healthy dose of fear. The Leafs may not be the best team in the NHL, but they’re high among the upper tier of playoff contenders, and they possess the high-end talent necessary to make a real series out of it. 

Up front, the Leafs boast quite possibly the best center depth in the NHL behind the Bruins, with Hart Trophy-winner Auston Matthews, 47-goal scorer John Tavares, and playoff MVP Ryan O’Reilly manning the top three center slots. If anyone can contend with the Bruins’ top-three of Patrice Bergeron, David Krejčí, and Charlie Coyle, it’s the Leafs. 

Supplementing Toronto’s elite centers are right wingers Mitch Marner—whose 10 playoff points currently lead all skaters—and William Nylander, who is fresh off a career-high 40 goal season. 

The public and the media have long posed questions about whether Toronto’s top-heavy salary cap structure—which devotes a whopping 44.18 percent of the cap to Matthews, Marner, Tavares, and Nylander—can provide cap space to create a deep enough forward group to contend in the playoffs. 

So far, the Leafs have proven everybody wrong with their stars leading the way and the depth group chipping in too. But if they make it past the Lightning, the issue of depth—particularly on defense and in the goal—may rear its ugly head against the Bruins. 

The B’s, down their top two centers in Bergeron and Krejčí for chunks of the first round, have still managed to contend with the Panthers, aided by the deepest forward group in the league. On the blue line, the depth is even better, where the Bruins’ fearsome septet of defensemen shut down one of the NHL’s best offenses in the first round. And in-between the pipes, Vezina Trophy-contending goaltender Linus Ullmark is backed up by a highly capable Jeremy Swayman.

But as Toronto is proving against Tampa Bay, high end talent can outperform even some of the strongest depth with skilled play and a little bit of luck. 

The Bruins’ path to defeating the Leafs will be insulating the four-headed monster of Matthews, Marner, Tavares, and Nylander, and taking advantage of Toronto’s comparatively weak D-corps and netminders. Shutting down the Leafs’ red-hot power-play (35.3 percent in the playoffs) will be paramount as well, although the Bruins’ best-in-show penalty kill should aid them in this department. 

If all goes according to plan, the Bruins should be able to move past the Leafs as they have for each of their last six playoff meetings—though the Leafs’ stars will be the X-factor in any potential match-up. 

Yikes-o-Meter says: 3/5 😬😬😬

Tampa Bay Lightning

Since 2014-15, the Lightning have played in 139 playoff games. They’ve won 85 of them. 

The 2020 and 2021 Stanley Cup champs may be staring down a 3-1 series deficit, but don’t count them out now. Battle-tested and playoff-hardened, the Lightning are in it until they’re officially eliminated. That their opponent is the verified cursed Maple Leafs only boosts their chances of winning the next three games in a row. 

If the Lightning survive their first round against the Leafs, they’ll have a far more well-rested Bruins team awaiting them. Such a heavy load of games played in recent seasons will have taken a toll on the league’s most recent dynastic franchise. 

But if they can hit the ground running and keep their legs under them, the Lightning should represent one of the most legitimate threats to the Bruins’ postseason supremacy. The very areas in which the B’s best Toronto—defense and goaltending—are Tampa’s biggest strengths. 

The blue line has gotten thinner since the offseason departures of defenders Ryan McDonagh (traded to the Nashville Predators) and Jan Rutta (signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins in free agency). However, even without those two defenseman, the shutdown trio of Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Černák, and Victor Hedman will not make life easy for any would-be Bruins attackers. 

In the net, the Lightning boast the best goaltender in the world: Andrei Vasilevskiy. Though he’s not played at that level so far in the first round—.856 save percentage, -5.1 goals saved above expected—it would be foolish to bet against a bounceback if his team moves on to the second round. In fact, any possibility of a second round appearance hinges on such a bounceback. 

In terms of systems, the Lightning pose a threat too. Tampa’s aggressive forecheck, which has caused problems for the Leafs through the first four games of the series, might prove to be effective against the Bruins as well. 

In the two Panthers wins of the opening round, Florida forced repeated turnovers by pressuring Bruins defensemen when they tried to break the puck out of their own zone. If the Lightning—who are stocked with speedy, hard-hitting, puck-disrupting forwards like Brandon Hagel, Corey Perry, and Ross Colton—can follow the same recipe, they could find success on quick-change turnover goals. 

Though the path to Lightning success is improbable, it’s far from impossible. Throughout many points in their series with the Leafs—Game 1 and the first two periods of Game 3 and Game 4—the Bolts have looked like the better team. Bad luck, poor goaltending, and a leaky penalty kill have done them in thus far, but a rapid recovery is not out of the question. 

If they defeat the Leafs and send the city of Toronto into another post-playoff depression, the Lightning will be a very capable competitor in the second round. Until the Leafs prove that they can finally win in the postseason, the Lightning are the more dangerous opponent. 

Yikes-o-Meter says: 4/5 😬😬😬😬

Conclusion

The Bruins are likely to beat the Panthers in the first round. The Cats are no push-overs, as evidenced by two gutsy wins in the opening series of the playoffs, but the B’s are simply better. The path to a championship, however, will kick up a difficulty notch in Round 2. Whether it’s the finally-free Leafs or the once-again-victorious Lightning, the Bruins will need to bring their A-game to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. 

The Yikes-o-Meter, ancient and wise as it is, opted for experience over simple probability—I’ll give it a swift kick once I wrap up this column and see if it switches its tune. For now, any B’s fans, I encourage you to tune into the Leafs vs. Lightning game on Thursday night, if not at least to see what might be waiting ahead.