The first all-Florida post-season showdown will take place in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs as the Florida Panthers take on the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It may be hard to believe, but the Lightning and Panthers have never met in a playoff series. The Panthers began play in the 1993-1994 season, a year after the Lightning debuted.
Florida hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996. They reached the Stanley Cup Final but were swept by the Colorado Avalanche. Last season, the Panthers were bounced from the best-of-five Qualifying Round thanks to the New York Islanders.
The Lightning, meanwhile, are the defending Stanley Cup champs and have delivered the goods in the post-season. The Panthers may own home ice advantage, but on paper Tampa Bay seems to be the clear favourites.
Florida enters the series with a lot to prove. They’re riding a lot of momentum, going 11-2-1 since April 13 and thrashing the Lightning in their last three regular season matchups. They blasted them out of the water by a combined score of 14-4.
Perhaps the best news for Tampa is that they should have Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov back in the lineup. Kucherov led the NHL in playoff scoring last season with 34 points, but he hasn’t seen action in the regular season after having hip surgery on December 29. As of late, the 27-year-old has been participating in full practices and seems ready to rock.
Containing a motivated Kucherov will be tricky for the Panthers, even if rust may be an issue to start.
Stamkos hasn’t played April 8, when he scored a goal against Columbus but skated for just under a dozen minutes. He missed the last 16 games of the regular season, still posting 17 goals in the truncated campaign.
“We’re hoping those guys are going to be good to go,” Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper said. “They’re looking good now, so signs are pointing for them to be in the lineup and we hope they will be.”
Jonathan Huberdeau led the charge for Florida in scoring this season, with a 61-point campaign. He put together a five-point night against Nashville on April 27 and has seven points in seven games against Tampa in the regular season.
Brayden Point led the Lightning in scoring, with 48 points in 56 games. He had six points in eight games against the Panthers and Tampa will be looking to him for consistency, especially as they keep an eye on how well Kucherov looks in his first few games back.
Coaching could turn this series on its head. List Joel Quenneville among those with a lot to prove in this series. The Panthers shelled out big time for the bench boss and he’s been spectacular when it comes to handling adversity in Florida this season. His club led the Central Division in goals per game and shots on goal per game.
Goaltending is another story – and it’s exactly where this series could shift.
The Lightning will start Andrei Vasilevskiy. He’s been enjoying a Vezina-ready campaign once more, with a 31-10-1 record and a 2.21 goals against average. He posted five shutouts, with a .925 save percentage. Vasilevskiy leads all goalies in wins since 2017-2018 and is tied with Marc-Andre Fleury with 22 shutouts in that timeframe.
Sergei Bobrovsky is expected to get the start for the Panthers, but Chris Driedger might challenge. The problem for Bobrovsky is that, despite his heavy price tag, his playoff performance history is less than stellar. His career save percentage in the post-season is .902, although he did turn it on against Tampa for Columbus. Driedger and Spencer Knight will definitely be waiting in the wings, regardless.
Pic: Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images