For the first time since each team came into the league, the Florida rivals, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers prepare to face off in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The two teams were part of the eight team Central Division this season, and each team had an excellent season. The Panthers posted their best point percentage in franchise history at .705, going 37-14-5 in the 56 game season, for 79 points, which was good for second in the Central. The Bolts finished 36-17-3, which is good for 75 points and a .670 point percentage, which saw them finish third in the Central. The higher-seeded Panthers get home ice.
Both teams were hit hard by the injury bug this season, and as the postseason begins, each team will get several reinforcements from the injured list.
The Tampa Bay Lightning will benefit the most from this. Former Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov is back after missing the whole regular season due to an offseason hip surgery. The 27 year old Russian posted 85 points in 68 regular season games last year, with 34 points in 25 postseason games in route to helping the Lightning win their second Stanley Cup in franchise history. For those concerned about Kucherov’s health, he has been skating for over a month. Many believe that the Tampa Bay Lightning held him out of the regular season to circumvent the salary cap, saving him for the postseason. Kucherov has hit the 100 point mark twice in his career, including his 128 point Hart winning season in 2018-19. Kucherov has hit the thirty goal mark five times in his career. In his postseason career, Kucherov has 95 points in 90 career games. Kucherov has been a Panther killer in his career with 14 goals and 30 points in his 26 career contests against the Panthers, which is the second most he has against one team in his career.
Additionally, Tampa Bay Captain Steven Stamkos is also preparing to return to the lineup. The former first overall pick has been one of the best snipers in NHL history, with 439 of his 866 points being goals in 814 career games. Stamkos has had many injury issues over the past couple of years, notably being absent for almost the entire Stanley Cup run the Lightning undertook last year. Stamkos played one playoff game, which was just two minutes in the Cup finals, scoring a goal. Stamkos has 54 points in 71 career playoff games. The 31 year old has dominated the Panthers in his career with 34 goals and 68 points in 56 career games against his team’s cross state rival.
Other players returning to the Lightning lineup after missing the final game(s) of the regular season include D Victor Hedman, who is expected to need surgery on his lower body following the conclusion of the postseason. Hedman was injured earlier in the season, but played through it, before being taken out of the lineup for the final two games of the season. The defending Conn Smythe winner posted 22 points in 25 playoff games last season, with 45 regular season points this year in 54 games. Hedman has 518 career points in 816 career games, with 70 postseason points in 94 postseason games. Hedman is expected to be one of the favorites for the Norris Trophy this season. D Ryan McDonagh is a very reliable defensive defenseman, who often complements as the #2 or #3 defender on the Tampa roster is also back from an injury. Top line Forward Ondrej Palat is also expected to be back after missing the final game of the regular season.
The Panthers are also getting injury reinforcements. Forward Carter Verehaege returned to the lineup Monday after missing thirteen games to injury. Verehaege scored a goal in his return to the lineup and has been a breakout player for the Panthers this year, scoring 36 points, 18 goals and 18 assists in 43 games. Verehaege was signed as a free agent after winning the cup with the Lightning last year, where he played 8 games as a depth piece on that Tampa roster that won the cup. After moving across state, he was finally given an opportunity playing with Sasha Barkov and has taken that and ran with it.
Forward Patric Hornqvist returns to the lineup after missing the final 7 games of the season with an undisclosed injury. Hornqvist is a crucial part of the Panthers playoff push, having won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, including the cup clinching goal in their second of back to back cups in 2017. Hornqvist had 14 goals and 32 points in 44 games this year, which added to his 512 career points in 814 games. The 34 year old Swede has 25 goals and 46 points in 90 career playoff games.
In addition, Forwards Sam Bennett, Jonathan Huberdeau and Noel Acciari along with Defenseman Brandon Montour are expected back after missing the final game of the regular season with various injuries which included undisclosed injuries (Bennett/Montour/Acciari) and illness (Huberdeau).
The Panthers fared well in the regular season, beating the Lightning in 5 of 8 regular season contests, including three of four at home. The Cats would go 5-2-1 against the Bolts, while the Bolts went 3-5-0 against the Cats this year.
The Panthers defeated the Lightning in the first contest between the two teams which was held in Sunrise 5-2. Aaron Ekblad scored the game winning goal and had an assist, as Sergei Bobrovsky made 19 saves on 21 shots as the Panthers dominated the Lightning in that game. Andrei Vasilevskiy saved 24 of 28. Unfortunately for the Panthers, Ekblad is not available for this series, as he is halfway through a lengthy recovery from a surgery for a broken bone in his lower body, suffered in a game in late March.
The Lightning would dominate the Panthers in game two of the season, shelling the Cats for their worst loss of the year, putting a six-spot on Sergei Bobrovsky. Tyler Johnson had two goals and Andrei Vasilevskiy made thirty three saves.
Oddly, rather than a two game set, the first set between the Cats and Bolts was three games, with the first two being held in Sunrise and the final in Tampa. Game 3 was an offensive explosion, as the Panthers put up a six-spot of their own on Tampa, shelling Curtis McElhinney. Aleksander Barkov scored the game winner and had an assist. Chris Driedger picked up the win despite allowing four goals.
Game 4 was a one game thing, which was characterized by awful officiating, which saw two Panther goals overturned. The Bolts would win 5-3 as Sergei Bobrovsky allowed four goals. Tyler Johnson had the game winner, while Curtis McElhinney stopped 30 of 33 shots.
Game 5 saw the Panthers dominate, but Andrei Vasilevskiy put on one of the greatest individual performances ever seen by a goaltender, singlehandedly stealing the game for the Bolts in Tampa, as they won 3-2 in overtime thanks to Victor Hedman.
Game 6 was more even, but the Panthers won 5-3. Sam Bennett tallied two assists in his Panthers debut, as Sergei Bobrovsky put up one of his better efforts of the season, making 28 saves, including a game-saving stop on Brayden Point in the final minutes.
Games 7 and 8 were this past week which saw the Panthers dominate by scores of 5-1 and 4-0. Alex Wennberg scored 4 of the 9 Panther goals in those games, as Sergei Bobrovsky made 28 saves on 29 shots in a very chippy Game 7 that saw 156 PIM. Game 8 was a 4-0 Panther win as Chris Driedger stopped all 30 shots he faced.
Many pundits have predicted that this series will largely come down to goaltending.
Andrei Vasilevskiy had an excellent season, and is the best goalie in the NHL and the heavy favorite for the Veznia Trophy. Vasy played the second most games among NHL goalies this year at 42 and led the way with 31 wins. Among goalies with at least 20 games played, Vasilevskiy’s stats are as follow: 42 Games (2nd), 31 Wins (1st), .925 SVPCT (6th), 2.21 GAA (8th) and 5 shutouts (4th). With many injuries to Tampa’s lineup, Vasy is the main reason why they have been so good this year. However, Vasilevskiy has not been his best so far against the Panthers this season, as he struggled in the final two games of the season, including an embarrassing turnover to Juho Lammikko which saw the Cats score a short handed goal, and a weak backhanded goal by Jonathan Huberdeau. The Panthers won’t have the luxury of Vasy making those mental errors in the playoffs, as with nearly a week off, he is surely bound to be on top of his game, and in those last two games was playing behind a defense made up of Mikhail Sergachev and mainly AHL caliber defenders. With Hedman and McDonagh coming back, Vasy’s job will be a lot easier. Vasy is likely to steal a game or two like he did earlier in the season in Game 5 of the season series. Vasilevskiy had a .927 save percentage and an absurd 1.90 GAA when the Bolts won the cup last year, starting all 25 postseason matchups. He was 2-4-0 in 6 games against the Cats this year with a .898 Save Percentage and 3.36 GAA.
The Lightning’s backup goalie is Curtis McElhinney. The 37 year old had a season to forget, going 4-6-2 with a miserable .875 save percentage, 3.09 GAA and 1 shutout. He went 1-1-0 in 2 games against the Panthers with an .830 save percentage and a 4.58 GAA this season. Christopher Gibson is the third string goalie for the Bolts, going 1-1-0 in 2 starts this season with an .875 save percentage and a 2.66 GAA. He did not face the Panthers this season.
Meanwhile, the Panthers have a three-headed monster in net. The Panthers first string goalie is Sergei Bobrovsky. The former two time Veznia winner has struggled in his time in Florida, but improved in his sophomore campaign with the Cats. Bobrovsky’s stats this season among goalies with at least twenty games are as follow: 31 Games (23rd), 19 Wins (T-9th), .906 SVPCT (T-31st), 2.91 GAA (34th) and no shutouts (T-37th). Bobrovsky was a major reason why the Tampa Bay Lightning were swept in Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as with the Blue Jackets, Bobrovsky posted a .932 Save Percentage and a 2.01 GAA in that series. In 38 career playoff games, 34 which he started, Bob is 12-21 with a 3.13 GAA and a .902 Save Percentage, as he has struggled in the postseason outside of 2018-19. Bobrovsky faced the Lightning five times this season, going 3-2-0 with a .879 save percentage and a 3.23 GAA against them. His two losses against Tampa were among his worst performances of the season, while each of the three wins against Tampa were among his best of the year. His final start of the regular season was against Tampa, where he made 28 saves in what I considered to be his best start as a Panther so far.
However, Bobrovsky has a very short leash, as backup goaltender Chris Driedger has been nothing short of excellent this season. Called up last year as a backup, Driedger had an excellent season and in his first full NHL season, Driedger continued his excellent play. Like Bobrovsky, Driedger would hit the 20 game marker, which makes him eligible to be listed in my NHL Goalie Stats. Although his 23 games are tied for 37th among goalies w/ over 20 games, his other numbers were among the best with a .927 save percentage (T-4th), 2.07 GAA (5th), 14 wins (T-23rd) and 3 shutouts (T-6th). Driedger has never seen playoff hockey in the NHL before. In 3 games against the Lightning this season, Driedger went 2-0-1 with an impressive .913 save percentage, 2.33 GAA and a shutout. My issue is that the shutout kind of inflates his numbers against the Bolts, as that game he was basically facing an AHL roster, due to the Lightning resting like half their players, but it is still solid nonetheless.
Additionally, the Panthers third string Goalie is Spencer Knight. The 20 year old phenom played in 4 games this season, and played with phenomenal poise, winning all three of his starts and winning a game in relief of Sergei Bobrovsky, to become the youngest goalie to ever go 4-0-0 to start his career. The first goalie to play in the NHL born in the 2000s, Knight posted a .919 save percentage and a 2.32 GAA. Knight is NHL ready, and he could be thrown into the lineup if Bobrovsky and Driedger falter or get hurt.
The Panthers have a much deeper talent pool in goalie, but in the playoffs, you usually only need one guy. With that the obvious best goalie of any of these guys is Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Panthers goaltending will have to face a rough task with Kucherov and Stamkos, and the rest of the high flying Tampa offense. The Panthers offense is electric too, and has been very good against Tampa this season, so Andrei Vasilveskiy won’t be having a day at the beach either.
The Lightning have a very solid blueline. On the first pair, Victor Hedman, who despite needing surgery, is going to be the #1 defender. He won’t be at 100% strength, but even not on top of his game, Hedman is still among the best in the league. Hedman’s incredible size at 6’6 make him the tallest player on the ice between these two teams and the rest of the Tampa blueline is one of the biggest in size in the NHL, with their main 6 defenders (according to CapFriendly) averaging out at 6’3 and 221 lbs. Hedman is one of the best two-way defenders in the NHL and he is partnered with Jan Rutta. Ryan McDonagh is partnered with the physical Erik Cernak, who plays on the edge. Mikhail Sergachev is a talented offensive defenseman, partnered with the defensive minded David Savard, who was acquired at the trade deadline. The Lightning’s extra blueliners include Luke Schenn and rookie Cal Foote, son of former NHLer Adam Foote. Tampa’s blueline has been exploited a lot by the Panthers speed this year, but we should see a better Tampa defense, as Jon Cooper prepares strategies for his defense to contain speedy Panther wingers such as Anthony Duclair.
The Panthers defense has been so-so this season. Aaron Ekblad was the team’s best blueliner, but a scary lower-body injury in March has all but sidelined him for any postseason run the Panthers may go on. However, Mackenzie Weegar has emerged as an elite defender in Ekblad’s absence, playing the best hockey of his career. Weegar has emerged from a defensive minded defender into one of the best two-way defenders in the game, posting a career high 36 points in 54 games played, including 17 points in 19 games without his partner Ekblad. Weegar’s +29 was tied for 2nd in the NHL this season. He is partnered now with Gustav Forsling, who was claimed on waivers who has also emerged into an excellent two-way defender for the Cats. Forsling’s left handed shot allows Weegar to play on his natural right handed side, while when Weegar was with Ekblad, he was forced on the left side. Meanwhile, the Panthers have seen defender Brandon Montour develop chemistry with Markus Nutivaara, on what has become an extremely solid second pair. Acquired at the deadline, Montour has been solid for the Cats. He and Nutivaara aren’t a gamebreaking pair, but they are a solid pair at the NHL level. However, Keith Yandle has struggled mightly for the Panthers this season. His iron-man streak still intact, Yandle put up one of his worst offensive seasons in the NHL, going under half a point of game for the first time in his career since 2008-09. Yandle struggled defensively too, making many costly mistakes. Yandle has also become the target of the fanbase, who is eager to see him out of the lineup. However, he is a good locker room presence, and the team has done well this year. With the iron-man streak not being affected by the postseason, it is possible that he may sit. Radko Gudas has had an up and down season. He plays a very physical game, but has had stretches during the season where he has struggled on the blueline. As for extra blueliners, Noah Juulsen, rookie Matt Kiersted, Anton Stralman and Kevin Connauton are on stand-by.
The Lightning were the 6th best in Goals Allowed Per Game, only allowing 2.59 goals per game. The Panthers ranked 9th in Goals allowed per game at 2.70 goals per game.
The Tampa Bay Lightning offense is about to get a major firepower boost with the return of Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos. The Bolts ranked 9th in Goals For Per Game at 3.21 goals per game.
Nikita Kucherov will slide in on the top line, reuniting with Ondrej Palat and Brayden Point. Point led Tampa with 48 points this season and in goals with 23 while playing a full 56 game season. Palat finished second in assists and points with 31 and 46 respectively. Kucherov has not played a game this season.
Stamkos jumps on the second line with Anthony Cirelli (50 GP 9-13-22) and Alex Killorn (56 GP 15-18-33).
The Lightning’s third line is very solid as Yanni Gourde (56 GP, 17-19-36) centers Blake Coleman (55 GP, 14-17-31) and Ross Colton (30 GP, 9-3-12). Barclay Goodrow (55 GP, 6-14-20) usually fills in that left wing role, but is out indefinitely with a lower body injury, after taking a big check into the bench by Noel Acciari on Saturday.
Tampa’s fourth line is very good as well. Mathieu Joseph (56 GP, 12-7-19) is a very good sniper and he is playing with Tyler Johnson (55 GP, 8-14-22) and Pat Maroon (55 GP, 4-14-18). Maroon has won two consecutive Stanley Cups and made waves with his declaration that the Panthers would be saying “Holy s— we are playing the Tampa Bay Lightning” after the two-game set to finish the year prior to the playoffs. The Panthers responded by outscoring Tampa 9-1 and getting Maroon suspended for the final game of the season.
Tampa’s top line is a nearly exclusively offensive minded line. Cirelli and Killorn are more defensive-minded, but they should do alright with the offensive minded Stamkos. The third line is a dangerous two-way line that can shut down the best offenses in the league, while providing production of their own. The fourth line is a physical line that can put points on the board. Tampa is a very deep team up front. Extra forwards include Alex Barre-Boulet, Gemel Smith and Mitch Stephens. The Bolts also had 7 players with 10+ goals this season. Their leading blueline goal scorer was Hedman with 9.
The Panthers offense ranked 4th in the NHL this year in goals for per game, scoring 3.36 goals per game. Of the 12 starting forwards, eight of the Panthers forwards scored 10+ goals this season.
The Panthers top line is one of the fastest in the league. Sasha Barkov is one of the best two way centers in the league and led his team with 26 goals this season. Barkov posted 58 points in 50 games this season. Carter Verehaege scored 36 points in 42 games, with 18 goals and has emerged as a very dangerous 5 on 5 player. Anthony Duclair didn’t score as much this year but was a very dynamic playmaker and passer, and has begun to heat up of late. Duclair’s speed is phenomenal and playing with Barkov has made him and Verehaege much better two-way forwards. This is a strong line that can thrive anywhere on the ice, and is deadly in transition.
Meanwhile, Sam Bennett has absolutely lit up South Florida since he was traded for, scoring 15 points in 10 games, a franchise record by a panther in his first 10 games after being acquired. Bennett plays with Jonathan Huberdeau, who posted 20 goals and a team leading 41 assists. Huberdeau’s 61 points led the Panthers for the second consecutive season. They were playing with Duclair, but injuries have forced Duclair to play with Barkov, as Owen Tippett has been given an opportunity with that second line. Tippett has been very good since his promotion, as he looks to expand on his 18 point rookie campaign. Huberdeau and Tippett struggle defensively, but Bennett is solid in the D-zone. These guys often play with Weegar and Forsling, who are very good at covering for them defensively. Huberdeau and Tippett must be careful with the puck, as they both have tendencies to turn the puck over.
On the third line, the Panthers have Frank Vatrano, who scored 18 goals this season, including 6 game winners and 3 overtime goals. Alex Wennberg scored 17 goals this season, a career high, and was a point per game against Tampa this year w/ 5 goals and 3 assists in 8 games against Tampa. As part of the Blue Jackets last year, Wennberg had 2 goals and 4 points in the 5 game series loss to Tampa. Patric Hornqivst rounds out that third line. This line is similar to Tampa’s third line. They are more defensively minded, but can beat you offensively.
The Panthers fourth line is nearly an exclusively physical line as bash brothers Ryan Lomberg and Mason Marchment along with hard-nosed veteran Noel Acciari are extremely gritty forecheckers who do not hesitate to check the opponent. Although this line doesn’t produce a lot offensively, they are good at wearing down the other team’s defense and helping to spark energy in the team.
The Panthers have a plethora of extra forwards including Grigori Denisenko, Nikita Gusev, Aleksi Heponiemi and Juho Lammikko.
The Tampa Bay Lightning had the NHL’s 8th best powerplay this season at 22.4%. The Panthers powerplay is 15th at 20.5%. Both teams have had serious regression on the powerplay after each team suffered key injuries. Prior to Steven Stamkos’s injury, Tampa’s powerplay was 4th best in the league at 25.1% as Stamkos scored 10 PPG. After his injury, the Lightning powerplay has slumped to 14.3%, which is 22nd best in the league. The Panthers saw a similar change with Aaron Ekblad going down. Ekblad’s 6 powerplay goals were 3rd best on the team, and their powerplay went from 7th best in the league at 24.8% during that stretch to 21st in the NHL in the stretch that he’s been injured at 14.3%. Stamkos’s injury came a week and a half after Ekblad. Unlike Tampa, which has Stamkos returning to the lineup, Ekblad isn’t coming back.
The Lightning penalty kill is 4th best in the league at 84.2%. The Panthers are 17th at 79.8%.
KEYS TO THE SERIES
- Stay out of the Box- The Lightning PP is lethal w/ Stamkos and Kucherov.
- Get off to a Fast Start- Panthers have never won a series where they lose Game 1. Winning Game 1 is crucial. Game 1 also has the most benefit, as Kucherov likely won’t be completely up to speed, and he is gonna play a big role in this series.
- Clutchness-Barkov and Huberdeau often disappear during big games. Barkov has gotten better this season, performing at the big moments, but Huberdeau needs to step up as well.
I do think this goes 7 games, but I have a feeling this is gonna be a repeat of 2016. Lightning in six.