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The Battle of Florida has arrived

A playoff series 28-years in waiting

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Florida Panthers Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

When the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers joined the NHL in the early 1990s this must have been what the NHL envisioned; a dream match-up of two talented teams, geographically close, with a bitter disdain for each other paired up for a first-round playoff series spearheading its push for southern hockey. It has taken 28-years for it to happen, but the Battle of Florida is officially here.

The franchises themselves are polar opposites. One has a championship pedigree in two separate decades. The other has been mismanaged to near obscurity for most of its existence. The past matters little now as both teams are clearly in the upper echelon of the NHL’s elite teams. This series is going to be a treat to watch.

The Lightning struggled against the Panthers during the regular season going 3-5-0 against their intrastate rivals, being outscored 31-24, outshot 251-213, out-chanced 194-174, and only generating an expected goals percentage of 44. It looks as though Florida has Tampa Bay’s number this season.

Tampa Bay has made a name for itself through its transition and forechecking ability over the past several years. Florida, essentially, does the same exact thing as the Lightning, but better.

Does that mean Tampa Bay is doomed at a chance to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions? Let’s take a deeper look into both teams.

TB & FL 2020-2021 GAR Chart
Evolving-Hockey, @EvolvingHockey, Evolving-Hockey.com

Resurgent years from Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad (prior to his untimely injury), and Mackenzie Weegar combined with breakout seasons from Carter Verhaeghe, Anthony Duclair, Sam Bennett, and Chris Driedger have anchored the Panthers’ return to the postseason.

Tampa Bay’s season was a tale of two parts. The first half saw the team dictate play in the same manner that led them to their second Stanley Cup. The second half saw inconsistency throughout the lineup and an over-reliance on Andrei Vasilevskiy playing at a Vezina level every night.

However, there are caveats to the generalizations provided for both teams. Outside of Barkov, Huberdeau, Ekblad (who doesn’t count for this since he is out for the remainder of the season), and Weegar, the Panthers don’t boast the same depth the Lightning does, and the track records of the players who have blossomed for them (Duclair, Verhaeghe, Bennett, Alex Wennberg, and Gustav Forsling) are either spotty or too small of a sample size to fully buy into. So, some level of skepticism is warranted on whether or not Florida’s depth will keep up with their top players.

The Lightning is viewed through a different lens. Missing their best player in Nikita Kucherov for the entire season noticeably altered their offensive creativity. For the first half of the season, Tampa Bay seemed like a well-oiled machine cruising through toward the playoffs. The second half saw inconsistency hit nearly every player in the lineup. Most notably, Victor Hedman and Anthony Cirelli.

Specifically, the focus needs to be honed on Cirelli. The 23-year old fourth-year pro has struggled since last season’s playoffs, something that has crept into this season in an unexpected way. Cirelli’s play has dropped considerably from last season. According to Evolving-Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement (GAR) metric, which measures a player’s contributions to his team in a single number, Cirelli has gone from a 15.7 in 2019-2020 to 1 in 2020-2021.

Anthony Cirelli, 2020-2021 & 2019-2020 Player Card
Evolving-Hockey, @EvolvingHockey, Evolving-Hockey.com

It’s unclear what specifically is ailing Cirelli this season, but this steep of a dive in performance is alarming. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Cirelli is not what we think he is, this is his first bad season in the NHL, but the Lightning isn’t going to go far if his play doesn’t turn around. They managed to buoy this last postseason thanks to Kucherov, Hedman, Point, and Vasilevskiy playing out of their minds, but that isn’t a recipe the team can hope to replicate time and time again.

This leads to Hedman, whose poor play down the stretch was broadcast all over the internet (he really doesn’t deserve to be in the Norris conversation this year). All signs point to Hedman rounding the corner given how his play rebounded in the final two weeks, but if the Big Swede isn’t the Big Swede come playoff time, Tampa Bay is going to struggle. Though, I have more faith that Hedman will rebound quicker than Cirelli will.

Additionally, David Savard has been middling since his arrival from Columbus. My biggest worry with him centered around the vast stylistic change he would have to make coming from one of the most passive defensive teams to one of the more aggressive ones. He’s already been knocked off the top pairing with Hedman (a spot many prematurely thought he would fill seamlessly) and has struggled to find a steady partner. The Lightning needs him to integrate quicker than what he’s done so far.

The biggest question mark entering the series for the Lightning centered around the health of Kucherov and captain Steven Stamkos.

Stamkos was having a strong season and was one of the few Lightning players that didn’t battle inconsistency issues (Point and Yanni Gourde being the other two). After missing nearly the entirety of their championship run last season, having a healthy Stamkos at the start of the postseason will only bolster Tampa Bay.

After missing an entire season due to hip surgery, and finally being cleared to play over the past several days, the former Hart Trophy winner (and snubbed from a Conn Smythe—seriously Kucherov’s absence should remind everyone how instrumental he is to this team) is essentially being asked to jump directly into playoff hockey and play at a top three level. That’s a hard ask for anyone, but this is Nikita Kucherov we’re talking about, the guy who just posted the fifth-most assists in NHL playoff history (there are two players ahead of him in spots 1-4—some guys called Lemieux and Gretzky).

The X-factor of the series comes in net. Vasilevskiy has arguably been the best goaltender in the NHL this season, and could well be on his way toward a second Vezina trophy. Conversely, Florida’s expensive goaltender has been mediocre. Buoyed by a strong offense and a suffocating defense, Bobrovsky’s numbers are pedestrian given his pedigree as an elite goaltender (.905 Sv%, -2.56 GSAA). Starting him over Driedger (.927 Sv%, 12.54 GSAA) seems like a bad idea (Bobrovsky starts Game 1 tonight).

Given how strong Florida has looked all season, and how up and down Tampa Bay has looked during the second half, it’s hard to know what to reliably place your bets on. Do you stick to the team that has been on multiple deep playoff runs and has shown it can win championships? Or, do you pick the surprising upstart that has all of the underlying numbers supporting them, but has legitimate depth questions from players that are playing over their heads?

Neither team is going to give an inch this series, and this will be the first time Tampa Bay will have their full roster all season. Kucherov’s impact cannot be understated, he’s a top-five player in this league and gives opposing defenses nightmares (just ask Columbus, Boston, New York, and Dallas last season). However, Florida, even with the depth concerns, is still a damn good hockey team.

Lightning in seven.