In a series between two division rivals, the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning will continue their quest for a three-peat, taking on the President’s Trophy-winning Florida Panthers. These two teams played each other four times in the regular season, splitting that series two games apiece. The Lightning finished the regular season with a 51-23-8 record, good enough for third in the Atlantic Division. They come into this series after a thrilling series with the Toronto Maple Leafs, which went the distance with the Lightning winning in seven games. The Panthers finished the regular season with a 58-18-6 record and defeated the Washington Capitals in six games in the first round. So now, without further ado, let’s break down the matchup.
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Starting in the crease, it projects to be a battle of the Russian netminders as Andrei Vasilevskiy will man the net for the Lightning against Sergei Bobrovsky for the Panthers. In the first few games of the Maple Leafs series, Vasilevskiy didn’t look like the elite netminder the hockey world has become used to seeing. Still, the former Vezina Trophy winner was able to get back to his form for games six and seven, which was a huge part of why the Lightning won both those games. For Bobrovsky, he comes into this matchup after a solid performance all around in the series against the Capitals. While Bobrovsky has been stellar for the Panthers as of late, Vasilevskiy’s recent form has to be something Panthers fans are wary of. The goaltending advantage goes to the Lightning.
From a defensive perspective, this matchup will be very intriguing. For Tampa Bay, while the playoffs haven’t been kind of them on the defensive end after one round, they also count on their defensemen for a big contribution offensively. The main point contributor, of course, is Victor Hedman who had seven points in the Maple Leafs series. The Lightning also allowed 2.78 goals against per game in the regular season, the sixth-fewest in the league.
The Panthers defense is very similar in the offensive aspect, but with Aaron Ekblad, who had five points in the Capitals series. However, Florida’s defensive core is more about defense than offense so far in the playoffs, even though their goals against per game in the regular season are more than the Lightning. If this were based on the regular season, it would easily be Tampa Bay. However, Tampa Bay will come into this series with something to prove on the defensive end against a dynamic offense. The defensive advantage goes to the Panthers.
The special teams could be what wins this series. Tampa Bay has done an excellent job to this point on the power play, currently sitting at 21.2 percent, which is eighth-best among all playoff teams. As for their penalty kill, they are sixth-best among playoff teams at 85.7 percent. This continues their good standing in both categories from the regular season as they finished in the top 10 in power play percentage and 11th in penalty kill percentage. For the Panthers, they haven’t converted on a power play yet in the playoffs, and their penalty kill is struggling, sitting twelfth sitting at 70.8 percent. The power play especially is quite the outlier as they finished top five in that category, but their penalty kills finished 16th in the regular season. This category is clear; the special teams advantage goes to the Lightning.
The offenses of both these teams are incredibly efficient and should be fun to watch. The Lightning had a back and forth series with the Maple Leafs on the offensive end and are currently averaging 3.29 goals per game in the playoffs, ninth-best among playoff teams. They were in the top ten in goals per game in the regular season, so this is par for the course. For the Panthers, they currently sit narrowly above the Lightning, averaging 3.33 goals per game in the playoffs. Again, they were at the top of the NHL in that category in the regular season. Both offenses are extraordinary, but the advantage here goes to the Panthers.
Killer Edge/Game Breakers
For both teams, their game breakers came about in the playoffs themselves. Starting with Tampa Bay, their game breaker has come out of nowhere and impressed many people in game seven against the Maple Leafs. Yes, Nick Paul is the game breaker for the Lightning. While they have many impact players like Steven Stamkos and Ondrej Palat, among others, a game breaker is someone that isn’t a high-profile player. Paul perfectly fits that description. With four points thus far in the playoffs, Paul has been an integral part of the Lightning both on offense and on defense.
For the Panthers, it has to be Carter Verhaeghe. With twelve points in the playoffs, Verhaeghe was a major part of the Panthers victory over the Capitals, including the series-winning goal in overtime of game six. As big as Paul has come to be for the Lightning, the advantage has to go to Verhaeghe and the Panthers here.
The coaching tells the story of the veteran versus the rookie. For Tampa Bay, Jon Cooper mans the helm. Cooper, of course, has been the head coach for their two Stanley Cup championships and has a third appearance under his belt back in the 2014-15 season. Cooper has been the coach of the Lightning since the 2012-13 season, taking over after the firing of Guy Boucher during that season. For the Panthers, Andrew Brunette is behind the bench for his first season. Brunette took over the head coach role after the resignation of Joel Quenneville after the reveal of the Kyle Beach scandal. While Brunette has had a successful first year, there is no substitute for championship experience. The coaching advantage goes to Tampa Bay.
Breaking down the categories, the series breaks down as even. Both of these teams should be evenly matched, and it looks like it will be a very long series. Both teams have electric offenses, great goaltending, and inconsistent special teams, at least in the playoffs. However, as the series continues, it will eventually come down to the defense. Right now, there are too many questions coming into the series on that side of things for the Lightning. The President’s Trophy curse will live to survive another series as the Panthers will take down the Lightning in this series.
Series Prediction: Florida 4-3
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