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Five questions ahead of the Lightning-Leafs series

Will home ice matter? Who needs to play well for the Lightning to advance out of the first round?
Lightning right wing Corey Perry gets a shot off while defended by Toronto defensemen Justin Holl (3) and TJ Brodie (78) during an April 21 game at Amalie Arena.
Lightning right wing Corey Perry gets a shot off while defended by Toronto defensemen Justin Holl (3) and TJ Brodie (78) during an April 21 game at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published May 1|Updated May 2

TORONTO — The Lightning’s Stanley Cup playoff series against the Maple Leafs is one of the most highly anticipated matchups of the first round as the defending back-to-back Cup champs face the league’s top goal scorer, Auston Matthews, and the best offense.

Here are five questions for Tampa Bay going into the series, which starts Monday night at Scotiabank Arena:

Will home ice matter?

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

Playing the first two games in Toronto will give the Maple Leafs the opportunity to grab momentum early. A loss at home, particularly for a Toronto team that hasn’t won a playoff series since 2004, could burst the bubble for the Leafs.

Related: Did someone set the Lightning’s alarm for the playoffs?

As for the Lightning, they won their first two playoff series in 2021 as the lower seed, though winning in Toronto might prove to be more difficult than at Florida or Carolina. Historically speaking, nearly half of all best-of-seven series have been won by the lower seed (66 of 135; 48.9 percent) over the previous 10 postseasons, not including the 2000 bubble.

Who are the X factors for the Lightning?

Alex Killorn gets around the defender and beats Coyotes goaltender Ivan Prosvetov for a goal in an Oct. 28 game at Amalie Arena.
Alex Killorn gets around the defender and beats Coyotes goaltender Ivan Prosvetov for a goal in an Oct. 28 game at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The Lightning need to own the net front. They need to take away Maple Leafs goaltender Jack Campbell’s line of sight and make him uncomfortable in the paint. That’s where forwards Alex Killorn and Corey Perry come in.

Killorn had his best offensive regular season with a career-high 25 goals and 59 points, and he gets a lot of deflection and rebound opportunities using his big body (6 feet 1, 199 pounds). Perry has made a career of living in front of the net. He probably still lives in the nightmares of Maple Leafs fans after scoring the series-clinching goal in Game 7 of the Canadiens’ first-round upset win over Toronto a year ago.

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

Don’t forget about Lightning forward Ondrej Palat, who was quiet over the second half of the season, but he has 31 points, including 16 goals, in the past two postseasons. He is the third part of a scalding top line with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.

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What Lightning player has the potential for a breakout?

Nick Paul works to move the puck against the Maple Leafs during an April 21 game at Amalie Arena.
Nick Paul works to move the puck against the Maple Leafs during an April 21 game at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The Lightning traded for forward Nick Paul at the deadline for moments like this. General manager Julien BriseBois said Paul’s heavy game was built for the postseason. We’ve seen the skill Paul possesses. He can get up the ice quickly for a player his size (6-3, 224 pounds) and has a great stick for a big man, even showing some fancy behind-the-back and between-the-legs moves around the net.

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

What is the most important special teams matchup?

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

The Lightning’s penalty kill will be under the magnifying glass facing the league’s top power play (Toronto led the league with a 27.3-percent success rate in the regular season). This might be when we really find out how much the Lightning miss Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, the top penalty-killing forwards on the previous two Cup teams.

Last postseason’s Lightning penalty kill was great, operating at an 86.1-percent success rate. There’s much different personnel now among the forwards, from Pierre-Edouard Bellemare to trade acquisitions Brandon Hagel and Paul. Bellemare is an experienced penalty killer who keeps things calm at the top. But like the past two seasons, the key will be top penalty kill defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak filling lanes and blocking shots, and not get hurt while doing it.

Ultimately, the best defense against a power play is not getting called for penalties, and the Lightning need to cut back on committing them.

Can Andrei Vasilevskiy take over the playoffs again?

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

The Lightning are surging on the back of a revived offense led by Stamkos, Kucherov and defenseman Victor Hedman, but Andrei Vasilevskiy is the backbone of the team, and victory in this series goes through him. That’s not to say Vasilevskiy needs to hold the Leafs to one or two goals a game. It’s more the timing of those goals. He needs to prevent a flurry of goals, and ones that come at the beginning and end of periods.

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

Does he need to stop Matthews? No, but Vasilevskiy does need to stop Matthews from taking control of the games, like Matthews did during his hat-trick performance against Tampa Bay on April 4. The bigger the moment, the better Vasilevskiy is, and his game reaches another level in the postseason.

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.

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