There is a popular internet meme of a GTA: San Andreas character saying “Ah s***, here we go again”. I imagine that is how most Panther fans felt when the Tampa Bay Lightning finished off the Toronto Maple Leafs Saturday night to advance to the second round. The Lightning are looking for their third consecutive Stanley Cup, trying to become the first team since the early 1980s Islanders to do so. The Panthers are looking to capture their elusive first championship, after finally vanquishing their 26 year old demon that kept them from the oasis of Round 2. The Lightning were the team that eliminated the Panthers last year in Round 1, in a fierce hard-fought 6-game series, complete with physical hits, cheap shots, spectacular skill and antics from Pat Maroon and Ryan Lomberg. Both teams look a little different this time around though. Let’s look at how this matchup will go, as the Battle of Florida Part 2 commences.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
The most significant story on the Tampa Bay Lightning side is the injury to star center Brayden Point. Point has developed into one of the most clutch players in the NHL. His Game 1 clincher in the final minute of regulation last year, stands with John Tavares’s wrap-around as one of the most nightmare inducing goals in Panther history. Point suffered a gruesome lower body injury during Game 7 and despite his best efforts to return, he physically was unable to do so. The severity of Point’s injury is unknown, but it did not look pretty, and it is possible that he will miss the start of the series.
Nikita Kucherov also didn’t look 100%, but I have no doubt his injury will “magically” be back to 100% by Game 1, as it has done so many times in the past. Speaking of Kucherov, the Russian is the Lightning’s most potent offensive weapon. The former Art Ross winner has been limited in the regular season due to “injuries”, but when he is in the lineup, he is a nightmare for goalies everywhere.
Kucherov and Point are far from the only weapons Tampa has on its potent offense. Captain Steven Stamkos once scored 60 in a season, and is still capable of racking up points, coming off of his first 100-point season in his career. Stamkos, Kucherov and Point make up one of the most formidable three-headed monsters in the NHL, but to just focus on them will kill you, due to Tampa’s potent depth.
Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat are both guys who often get overlooked, due to the stars they play with. Both guys put up massive numbers, although not as earth shattering as the big three, and while they don’t make the highlight reels, their hard work and skill is often enough to get one by you, if you pay too much attention to the Big Three. Meanwhile, Anthony Cirelli is an excellent penalty killing two-way center, that can strike when needed, but his offensive output hasn’t reached top-tier levels.
The most notable change to the Lightning from last year is the loss of their entire third line. Due to cap constraints, Yanni Gourde was sacrificed in the expansion draft, Blake Coleman got paid in Calgary and Barclay Goodrow was traded to the Rangers. The show goes on on the Gulf Coast however, as Tampa made two moves at the trade deadline that dramatically bolstered their third line. Brandon Hagel had a phenomenal season in Chicago, and despite his struggles in the regular season w/ Tampa after being acquired, the 175-pound native of Saskatoon is beginning to find his footing in Tampa this postseason, with 4 points in the Toronto series. With Point’s injury, one would expect Hagel to move into Tampa’s top six. Despite the star power, the player that concerns me most on Tampa is their other deadline acquisition. Nick Paul instantly clicked in the Tampa system after being acquired and was the force that helped Tampa win Game 7 with what Randy Moller would call “a big pair of goals”. Paul is seemingly on the verge of a breakout, and he worries me. Meanwhile, Ross Colton is another Tampa prospect that was perfectly molded in their system and has become an excellent producer at the NHL level. The question is if Tampa can afford him, or will they be forced to let him walk? That’s a question for another day. For now, Colton is a potent force on Tampa’s offense.
The Tampa Bay Lightning fourth line is a perfect mix of veterans. Pierre Eduoard-Bellemare is a great two-way center, and the 37 year old is hunting for that elusive Stanley Cup. Meanwhile he is flanked by two of the most annoying players in the league, ‘Fat Pat’ Maroon and Corey Perry. Maroon was the main antagonist of the Battle of Florida Part 1, with various antics from being suspended in the regular season for breaking away from an official, to doing a chicken dance at the Panthers bench to scoring the series clinching goal. Maroon has been a constant thorn in the Panthers side and he has won three consecutive Stanley Cups, which is pretty much the entire repertoire of his trash talking. Using that as an insult is like Elon Musk saying “I have more money than you”, it’s a factual statement that is meant to put you down, it’s not very creative, but there is no counter to it. After being eliminated in the finals by Tampa two years in a row, Corey Perry decided to join the evil empire in his quest for a second championship. He’s far from the perennial offensive threat he once was in Anaheim, but his agitative nature of cheap shots is still around and he brings a veteran presence to Tampa.
As for extras, Tampa will likely roll in Riley Nash for the injured Point. In the minors, Alex Barre-Boulet is likely the first call-up. Expected to be the next Colton, he hasn’t panned out like hoped, but he is Tampa’s #1 call up option, after trading Raddysh and Katchouk for Hagel. Charles Hudon could make an NHL comeback after being left in the AHL for over two years and a solid 57 point campaign in Syracuse this year. Remi Elie and Gemel Smith have NHL experience, and Gabe Fortier got a few games this year too. Syracuse is a factory of producing quality NHL players, so any guy that comes from there is to be taken seriously.
On the blueline, freak of nature Victor Hedman is back. Hedman’s massive frame and incredible two-way defensive game make him one of, if not the league’s best defenders. Hedman’s usual partner Jan Rutta has seemingly fallen out of favor with Jon Cooper, as he has been a scratch for most of the postseason. Hedman has been playing with Erik Cernak, a physical defender who plays on the edge, but has largely managed to avoid discipline. Ryan McDonagh decided to try to kill as many Panthers as possible last year during the playoffs, and went unpunished. Mikhail Sergachev is another physical presence and solid two-way blueliner. Zach Bogosian is a solid veteran presence and Cal Foote is seemingly starting to break out.
However, despite all of this star power, none of this star power on the ice is as crucial nor as important as the star between the pipes. The definition of clutch, the guy who is arguably in my opinion, the league’s best player, Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Panthers were able to beat Vasilevskiy a lot last year, and his Toronto campaign wasn’t great, and he may also be tiring, but Vasilevskiy has shown why he is the league’s best during Game 6 overtime and Game 7. Brian Elliott is a solid backup, but everyone knows that this is Vasy’s show, and he won’t relinquish the net, no matter.
Projected Tampa Lineup Game 1
Extras: Jan Rutta
Injuries: Brayden Point
Although, not $18 million over the cap, this is still a formidale team. The Toronto Maple Leafs put up a valiant fight, but it wasn’t enough. The Lightning are looking for that threepeat, but cracks are hopefully going to start showing. DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THIS TEAM! Jon Cooper is a master of getting in the opponent’s head through media manipulation, and as a former lawyer, the dude has no qualms about pulling whatever dirty tricks he finds necessary to win. Cooper doesn’t have mercy, he sold his soul for those championships (and I’m probably gonna get sued for that, so if you’re reading this Jon Cooper, please don’t sue me, I have no money). Tampa is undefeated in their last 16 games which followed up a postseason loss.
The Panthers also look largely similar from last year’s battle, but with a few significant upgrades. Claude Giroux was brought in from Philadelphia to win an elusive championship. Joe Thornton is cheering from the sidelines, hoping his South Florida teammates can bring him his elusive Lord Stanley. Anton Lundell had a great rookie season, Eetu Luostarinen broke out as an excellent defensive center and nearly every Panther offensive player had career years.
I’m not gonna bore you with the ins and outs of the Panthers, because almost all of you are Panther fans yourself and this would just me be teaching basic arithmetic to math majors. We all know what this team is capable of. The question is if they have the will to do it.
As for injuries, Aaron Ekblad and Ben Chiarot are good to go after injury scares in Game 6. Mason Marchment isn’t ready yet.
Projected Lineup Game 1
Extras: Joe Thornton, Maxim Mamin, Robert Hagg, Petteri Lindbohm, Lucas Carlsson, Jonas Johansson
Injured: Mason Marchment
Once again, I’m not gonna predict this series, but I don’t have a good feeling. The poor performance of special teams in the Washington series, Tampa’s ability to get under our skin and the experience of Cooper in comparison to rookie HC Andrew Brunette isn’t fair. This isn’t even accounting Tampa’s star power and Vasilevskiy. However, the Panthers have shown that they are never to be counted out. This is going to be a brutal and difficult series. The physicality, intensity and speed will make the Washington series look like preseason, and last year’s battle of Florida irrelevant. The Lightning have played the most games in the NHL by far over the last few years. The Panthers need to take advantage of that factor. That is how the Red Wings dynasty fell.