The hockey world sees stars and so, naturally, it is expecting thrills.
Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares sharing the same ice with Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point? Oh yeah, grab yourself a drink and a comfortable seat.
Tampa Bay and Toronto in the first round of the NHL playoffs is overkill for an opening act. There are defensemen who can score, fourth-liners who can score, even penalty-kill units that can score.
What more could a hockey nut possibly want?
Well, if you’re a Tampa Bay fan, drudgery would be nice. Maybe discipline, caution and intimidation, too. If you still want to be watching the Lightning play later this month, you might want defense, defense and more defense.
“We know we’re going to have the opportunity to score goals if we play the right way. We have all the skill in the world,” defenseman Victor Hedman told reporters after a practice in Toronto on Sunday. “But the defense is going to be the biggest key for us, as it’s been the past few years.”
It’s not that the Lightning would necessarily be overmatched in a high-scoring showdown with the Maple Leafs, but that is not the formula they have used to win back-to-back Stanley Cups.
It was only when the Lightning shed their Greatest Show on Ice label after 2019 that they became the world-beating, Cup-holding, boat-parading partiers you have come to know and love.
There’s a reason that the Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP the past two seasons has been a defenseman (Hedman) and a goaltender (Andrei Vasilevskiy) in Tampa Bay.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper has said it over and over again: all good things flow from the defensive side of the equation.
And that may never be more accurate than in this opening-round matchup.
The Leafs are goal-scoring savants. Matthews has won back-to-back Rocket Richard trophies as the NHL’s top goal-scorer. Tavares is right behind Alex Ovechkin and Stamkos in goals scored since 2009-10.
In the last three seasons, the Maple Leafs are second in the Eastern Conference in scoring behind Florida. Which, of course, means they have more goals than the Lightning over the last 200-plus regular-season games.
Yet the Lightning have won consecutive Stanley Cups while Toronto has failed to win a single playoff series in the past two seasons.
And the difference is a team that knows how to win tight-checking, low-scoring games in the postseason versus a team that is used to fast-breaking its way to victories. Heck, the Maple Leafs outscored Montreal by four goals in the first round in 2021 and still managed to lose the series in seven games.
That should have been a clue in Toronto. A giant, unmistakable, what-the-heck kind of clue.
In the last two years, Toronto has gone 2-7 in the postseason when scoring three goals or fewer. By comparison, Tampa Bay went 17-12 when scoring three goals or fewer. That indicates a vastly different philosophy. A different type of roster. A different mindset.
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These are all lessons the Lightning learned after their first-round debacle against Columbus in 2019. The next year, they were not nearly as dynamic, but they were bigger, tougher and smarter.
They didn’t always play that way in the past few months, but they at least know the game plan.
For tempting and entertaining as it may be to get into a back-and-forth race with the Maple Leafs, it is not in Tampa Bay’s best interests. That’s why one of the more interesting storylines of the series will be if Anthony Cirelli’s line is asked to shut down the Matthews/Marner line.
Unselfish players are the backbone of great teams, and sacrificing offensive chances to cut down on Toronto’s breakaways will be a huge factor.
The biggest advantage the Lightning have in a position-by-position matchup is at goaltender, and they cannot afford to negate that with too many odd-man rushes that leave Vasilevskiy stranded against elite scorers.
“We’ve got the best goaltender in the world, who is going to give us a chance every night,” Hedman said. “But it’s up to us to eliminate the high-danger scoring areas. That’s when they’re going to get you.”
It’s possible the light bulb has gone on in Toronto, much the way it did for Tampa Bay a few years ago. As potent as their offense is, the Maple Leafs cut their goals-against average from 3.17 last season to 2.64 this year. Low-scoring games are no longer an automatic warning sign in Toronto.
But, of course, the playoffs are a different season.
Maybe the Maple Leafs have learned that lesson, maybe they haven’t. But if they need an example of what defense can do for a team in the postseason, they need only look across the ice.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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