5 Things to Watch for as Toronto Maple Leafs Face the Tampa Bay Lightning
With the Toronto Maple Leafs at their lowest point of the season—at least in terms of play—hosting the Tampa Bay Lightning may not be the best situation. Going into Wednesday night's play, Tampa Bay is second in the Eastern Conference.
The Leafs are coming off of two humiliating losses. The club was bested by the lowly Buffalo Sabres and followed this up with a 9-2 whitewashing at the hands of the mighty Nashville Predators on Tuesday evening at the Air Canada Centre, per nhl.com.
Change may be coming to the Leafs, but for now, they have to work with what they have. Let's take a look at five things to watch for against the talented Lightning.
All stats can be found on nhl.com unless noted otherwise.
How the Leafs Respond Early
The Leafs have to come out of the gate firing. If they don't, the ACC crowd will turn on them immediately—as well they should.
This knowledgeable crowd wants nothing more than the club to give an honest effort and be competitive. Those two things have not happened since the Boston win.
The Lightning have strengths across the entire roster. They have the second-most wins in the Eastern Conference, and they will want to pounce early on the floundering Leafs.
The first 10 minutes of this game could be decisive.
The Leafs Must Create Offensive Pressure
At their best, the Leafs have managed to create offence both off the rush and by playing heavy hockey in the offensive zone.
The Lightning are a good defensive team, but not one of the league's best. The Leafs should get their chances if the defenders also get engaged in the play.
Randy Carlyle has moved Nazem Kadri around in trying to get some more team offence. His play with Santorelli, in particular, has been good.
The coaching staff has to be more creative in this manner to try to generate chances against the Lightning. If the Leafs are chasing in their own end for the better part of the game, we all know how things will end.
Ben Bishop has won 11 games in 16 appearances this season and sports a .919 save percentage. There will be nothing easy about the Leafs' task.
Will Steven Stamkos Steal the Show?
Playing at the ACC in Toronto is a homecoming for Steven Stamkos. He's one of the most dynamic scorers in the game today, and this extra motivation is a problem for Toronto.
He flourishes under the bright lights, and he always appears motivated to shine in Toronto. The Markham, Ontario native will get his chances—he always does. It's how the Leafs respond defensively that will be critical.
If Stamkos is allowed to roam untouched in the attacking zone, or if he gets any breakaway chances, it's sure to be a long night for the Leafs.
A multi-point night for Stamkos in Canada's biggest city should mean a Lightning win.
The Leafs Need Great Goaltending
What should be a strength for the Leafs, has been a sore spot for the team. Both James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier have been struggling.
There are no NHL teams that can flourish without good goaltending. When you're a team that surrenders a lot of shots, many of them in prime scoring areas, there's not much reason for hope.
It won't be surprising to see a struggling goaltender get an early hook if he's off his game early against the Lightning. Both goalies were under .800, in save percentage, against the Predators. That can't happen again.
Don't be surprised if trade rumbles begin anew surrounding Reimer if he plays against the Lightning and comes up short.
Will Toronto's Leaders Step Up?
At some point, leadership has to emerge forcefully on the ice. It begins with captain Dion Phaneuf, who has to be a physical presence, try to remain poised in the defensive zone and chip in offensively.
Phil Kessel has to take up the challenge against Steven Stamkos and be the best offensive player on the ice. Kessel is an elite offensive talent—he has to show up and play that way every night.
Veteran defenders like Roman Polak, Stephane Robidas and Cody Franson have to be steadying influences on Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner. The latter two have looked lost, at times, in the past few games.
Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk also have to be better. Finally, veteran pluggers David Clarkson and Leo Komarov can shake things up with hits, strong forechecking and making life miserable for the big and talented Lightning defence.
Leadership can take many forms, and the Maple Leafs need any kind they can get right now.