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It isn’t every day that a two-time defending champion opens the playoffs as an underdog, but that’s what we’re dealing with on Monday night as the Tampa Bay Lightning head to Toronto as slight +105 outsiders for Game 1. While that price still indicates this is essentially a coin flip, it is interesting to note because of the narratives attached to each team.

On one hand, you’ve got the Lightning, the league’s playoff powerhouse looking for a three-peat and on the other side are the Maple Leafs, who have not won a playoff series since 2004. Even with that baggage, it’s hard to argue with the logic of installing the Leafs as the favorites. Toronto was the stronger team in the regular season.

Lightning vs. Maple Leafs Game 1 odds

Odds provided by BetRivers

Spread: TB +1.5 (-225) vs. TOR -1.5 (+185)

Moneyline: TB (+110) vs. TOR (-127)

Total: Over 6.5 (-103) | Under 6.5 (-115)

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Lightning vs. Maple Leafs prediction for Game 1

Not only did the Leafs finish five points and eight goals ahead of the Bolts in the standings, but the Buds also ranked inside the top-5 in terms of goals per game, expected goals rate, high-danger scoring chance percentage and power-play percentage. Tampa’s numbers were also strong across the board, but they didn’t match the Leafs in most respects and we did see the Bolts go through uninspiring stretches at times during the regular season.

But the truth is that bettors can’t really treat the Lightning like other teams. Sure, the metrics remain the most important ingredient in handicapping this team, but the Bolts have earned the benefit of the doubt over the past few seasons. We know what this team can do in a playoff setting and it’s certainly possible that Tampa’s regular-season numbers — which were still solid — took a dip because the team was pacing itself for the playoffs. The Lightning have played a ton of hockey since the NHL returned from its COVID-hiatus nearly 20 months ago and had a playoff spot locked up around Christmas. They can be forgiven if they took their foot off the pedal at times. 

The overall numbers for this matchup will indicate that Toronto has been the better team in this series, but there is some raw handicapping that needs to come into play for this best-of-seven. And a lot of that handicap comes down to this: How much stock should we put into Tampa’s pedestrian stretch at a point of the season where they were likely just waiting for the playoffs to start?

Lightning vs. Maple Leafs
The Tampa Bay Lightning put on the pressure on offense
Getty Images

From a matchup perspective, Tampa is one of the few teams that can hang with the Leafs over the course of a series. Priority No. 1 for any team playing Toronto is to shut down Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner. While it’s unlikely the Bolts can keep Toronto’s dynamic duo off the scoresheet consistently, they do have the horses to somewhat mute the Leafs top line, which will be missing Michael Bunting for at least the curtain-raiser.

You can expect Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper to do everything he can to ensure that Matthews and Marner see a ton of Anthony Cirelli, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and Erik Cernak over the course of this series. Outside of the goaltending, Cirelli could end up being the most important factor in this series, as the shutdown center has the ability to keep Matthews and Marner somewhat in check.

So long as the Bolts can keep Matthews and Marner from consistently overruling them, then this series changes and the focus will shift to the goaltending, which is a huge edge for Tampa Bay.

Andrei Vasilevskiy has been the best goaltender in the world for the past three years and even in a year where he didn’t get much attention still posted a .917 save percentage and a +17.6 GSAx. 

On the other side of the ice will be Jack Campbell, who has been Jekyll-and-Hyde during his career in Toronto. After a spellbinding start to the season, Campbell was one of the NHL’s least effective goaltenders during the winter months until he ended up on IR. While Campbell has looked more stable since returning from injury, he’ll need to provide above-average goaltending to keep pace with Vasilevskiy and slow down a clinical Tampa Bay attack.

In a series where the margin for error is quite thin, the Lightning’s edge in goal is likely the difference-maker. Any plus-money on Tampa Bay is playable in Game 1.

Lightning vs. Maple Leafs Game 1 bet: Tampa Bay Lightning +100 or better (+105 on BetMGM)

Also read: Betting on the Lightning vs. Maple Leafs full series

Source: NYPOST

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