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Why the Lightning want to play the Panthers in the first round

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A possible Battle for Florida for the first time in NHL history.

Florida Panthers v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images

One of the intriguing things about this season’s playoffs is that once the play-in round is done, all the teams are going to be reseeded. That means the Tampa Bay Lightning can play any of the eight teams competing in the play-in round. Since the league didn’t respond to our idea of letting the higher seeds pick their opponent, we’re going to point out why the Lightning should want to play any of them.

Bulletin board material? Sure. Will opposing fans throw this in our faces should the Lightning somehow lose against their team? Probably. Possible jinx? If we believed in things like that. A little bit of fun as we wait for their opponent? Definitely.

Today’s first round victim: the Florida Panthers.

Why the Lightning want to see them in the first round

Given the Panthers volatile stability over the course of their existence and the Lightning’s own inconsistent history there has never been a Battle of Florida in postseason history. It’s likely that isn’t what commissioner Gary Bettman was hoping for when both teams were added to the league during the 1990’s, but sometimes things like that happen.

Over the course of Tampa Bay’s existence, they hold an all-time record of 62-53-10-13 (W-L-T-OTL) against Florida. Since Jeff Vinik’s purchase of the Lightning in 2010 they’ve held a 27-9-4 record against the Panthers with the only losing record coming in the 2015-2016 season where the Lightning went 1-3-1 against them.

To answer the question “why” does Tampa Bay want Florida in the first round?

Simpy put, Tampa Bay hasn’t struggled against Florida and it’s a big mismatch.

Panthers Regular Season

Florida ended the season at 35-26-8 with 78 points which left them three points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for third place in the Atlantic Division. They were barely positive in goal differential at +3, overly reliant on a strong power-play unit (21.3%), and hampered by an abysmal penalty killing unit (78.5%).

Most of Florida’s issues stem from their depth. Aside from their standout players Aleksander Barkov (62 points), Jonathan Huberdeau (78 points), Evgenii Dadonov (47 points), Mike Hoffman (59 points), Aaron Ekblad (41 points), and Sergei Bobrovksy this team just does not have the talent to keep up with the elite teams in the NHL. Add in that they traded their second best center in Vincent Trocheck, who was having a down season thanks to injuries and poor shooting percentage, and it makes the Panthers a top heavy team with no consistent secondary scoring threats.

Now, there are some hidden gems on Florida in Brett Connolly (19 goals) and Noel Acciari (20 goals). Connolly, a former first round pick for the Lightning, over the past four seasons has made an immense comeback in his career thanks to a four year stretch that has seen his goal scoring kick up to at least 15 goals in each of the past four seasons with a high of 22 in 2018-2019.

He’s also averaged a shooting percentage of 18.2% over that time span, so, it’s no stretch to say that Connolly is a rare welcome to Florida’s scoring depth. Now, 18.2% is elite territory for a shooter, but Connolly’s shot volume isn’t enough to put him in the same category as the league’s elite in this aspect. It’s not to say Connolly is a bad player, he’s a third liner with good finishing ability but shouldn’t be put out of his comfort zone.

Where alarm bells come in is with Acciari, a player who never scored more than 10 goals in a season suddenly doubling his career high at age 28 while shooting 18.5% and only shooting 108 times. Acciari was nothing more than a role player during his tenure in Boston and has seen his role expand in Florida—he averaged around 12 minutes in Boston and is averaging just under 16 minutes in Florida. However, he’s never moved the needle much at the NHL level and his sudden offensive explosion, albeit nice for Florida, shouldn’t be looked at as a consistent source of offense.

Season Series

The Lightning won the season series 3-1-0

10/03/19 Lightning win 5-2

10/05/19 Panthers win 4-3

12/10/19 Lightning win 2-1

12/23/19 Lightning win 6-1

Analysis of the Two Teams

Here’s a quick statistical look at both teams this season:

Statistics taken from Evolving-Hockey.com

Tampa Bay/Florida Stats

Team GP CF% GF% xGF% Sh Sv%
Team GP CF% GF% xGF% Sh Sv%
Lightning 70 53.47% 57.36% 54.38% 9.56% 0.924
Panthers 69 49.84% 50.67% 48.15% 9% 0.911

It’s quite easy to see why Tampa Bay is locked into the postseason and Florida has to battle the New York Islanders for a chance at the playoffs. From a statistical standpoint, the Panthers look nothing more than a middle of the road team. They’re treading water in possession, they lack enough quality chances to tilt the ice, and rely too heavily on their goaltending to buoy these deficiencies.

Here’s a more visual representation of the gap between the two Sunbelt teams using xG as a foundation of separating each team in the NHL.

xG Rates 5v5
Sean Tierney, @ChartingHockey, chartinghockey.ca

How things could go sideways

If there is one area that Florida has a distinct advantage, it’s on the bench. Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville is a three time Stanley Cup champion and is known for adjusting his strategy to optimize his team’s chances of winning. Lightning coach Jon Cooper, while successful as a head coach, has been criticized in the past for refusing to adapt to situations (perfectly embodied in last season’s embarrassing sweep by the Columbus Blue Jackets). If Florida’s top line can get hot combined with Bobrovsky imitating his performance from last postseason, their special teams holding ground, and Quenneville is able to slow the game down to a slog of neutral zone traps then it’s possible Florida could eek out numerous one goal games. It’s unlikely, and also constitutes Tampa Bay’s cadre of shooting talent going cold, but this section is for a worse case scenario.

Bold Prediction if these two teams match-up

The first Battle of Florida becomes a one-sided affair rather quickly with the Lightning winning in five games. It’ll be chippy given that both teams do not like each other, but Florida just does not have the depth to keep up with Tampa Bay.