NHL Playoff Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Florida Panthers

NHL Playoff Preview: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Florida Panthers

by May 16, 2021 0 comments

Another year, another postseason for Coach Jon Cooper and the Tampa Bay Lightning. After winning the Stanley Cup last year, they are ready to repeat. With the return of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov to the line-up, the Lightning will be more formidable than ever. They will be meeting their in-state rival Florida Panthers for the first time in the postseason.

The Panthers will be making their seventh playoff appearance in franchise history and have the advantage in the regular-season series, 5-2-1. The Lightning are accustomed to succeeding in the playoffs, but the Panthers have not won a playoff series since 1996 when they made it to the final before falling to the Colorado Avalanche.

More first round playoff previews can be found here.

Goaltending 

Andrei Vasilevskiy will be the starter for the Lightning, and he’s been one of the best players for the team. His record is 31-10-1 this season with an impressive .925 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.21 goals-against average (GAA). The Lightning are 5-7-2 without him in the net. There is no doubt he tips the scale in favor of the Lightning.

The Panthers might be rolling out a three-goalie system for this matchup, but Sergei Bobrovsky is the expected starter. He was 19-8-2 this season with a 906 SV% and a 2.91 GAA. The Panthers also have Chris Driedger, who was 14-6-3 with three shutouts, a 2.07 GAA, and .927 SV%, and rookie Spencer Knight was 4-0-0 with a 2.32 GAA and .919 SV%. Bobrovsky needs to be the best version of himself to match Vasilevskiy and not lose the starting position.

Defense 

Victor Hedman, Erik Cernak, and Mikhail Sergachev have been juggernauts for the Lightning all season. Hedman missed the last two games of the season with a lower-body injury but is expected to start. The Panthers have players like MacKenzie Weegar, Gustav Forsling, and Keith Yandle contributing to the defensive improvement from last season. Tampa Bay has the advantage with their star players, but strong, consistent play will determine which defense will shine and make a statement in this series.

Special Teams 

The Lightning have a slight advantage when it comes to their power play and their ability to kill penalties. They are ninth in the power-play percentage (PP%) with 22.4, and their penalty kill percentage (PK%) is ranked fourth in the league at 84.2 percent. The Panthers are 15th in PP% with 20.5 and 17th in PK% at 79.8. Despite the vast difference in ranking, the actual numbers are not so different to warrant panic on the Panthers’ part. However, Tampa Bay still has the statistical advantage, and it can be a crucial factor in determining the outcome of the matchup. 

Offense 

Florida will have Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and Patric Hornqvist to make pests of themselves and get pucks in the net. Hornqvist has been a surprising addition to the team, but his two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins make him a valuable veteran to lean on.

If Stamkos and Kucherov can quickly get back into the game, they will dramatically impact the Tampa Bay offense. Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat have stepped in throughout the season when needed for goals and assists. The Lightning would have the advantage over the Panthers if all their key players hit the ice ready to go.

Game-Breakers 

Point will be the game-changer for the Lightning. He led Tampa Bay with 48 points (23 goals, 25 assists) and scored six points (four goals, two assists) against the Panthers this season. Stamkos and Kucherov might influence the game’s direction, but right now they are an unknown factor. 

For the Panthers, it would be Huberdeau, who led the team with 61 points (20 goals, 41 assists). Seven points (three goals, four assists) came against the Lightning this season. He’s the longest-tenured Panthers player on the roster and has been quietly flying under the radar with everyone’s attention on Barkov. The advantage goes to the Panthers if only because of the threat Huberdeau could pose if Tampa Bay focuses too much on other offensive players.

Coaching 

Each coach has won at least one Stanley Cup. Joel Quenneville won three with the Chicago Blackhawks, and Cooper has the one victory from last season with the Lightning. They are both experienced and have brought out the best in their teams. Quenneville has gotten the Panthers to the playoffs for the two seasons that he has been the coach, which is an improvement after they had gone three seasons without making the playoffs. The coach who can more effectively utilize their players’ abilities will likely move on to the next round.

Series Prediction 

The Lightning have the star power, but never count the Panthers out. The Panthers’ primary key to success will be crating some stability with their goaltending. Florida will be coming off a five-day break, so they need to take advantage and come out flying against Tampa Bay and not look back. The Lightning will need to limit the Panthers’ offense and hope that Stamkos and Kucherov make an immediate impact.

Series Prediction: Panthers 4-3


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