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Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Florida Panthers Playoff Series Preview

We’re going to do this again.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Florida Panthers Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Two years ago, in the depth of The Pause we ran a Twitter poll to coincide with SBNation’s Rivalry Week. It was a simple question - Do you consider the Florida Panthers the top rival of the Tampa Bay Lightning? The answer was overwhelmingly - no.

In the responses, most folks listed Boston as the top rival for the Lightning (even if it’s not reciprocated by Bruins fans) due to their recent meet-ups in the playoffs and the general testiness whenever they met in the regular season.

Now, a couple of years, and one wild postseason series, later it’s likely those views have changed. Let’s take a look at a poll that we threw up on Twitter yesterday. As of 9:30 Monday morning, 62.3% now consider the Panthers the top rivals for the Lightning. Amazing what facing a team 18 times since the 2020-21 season will do to rial up a couple of fanbases.

The long awaited Sunshine State Rivalry that the league had hoped for when they plunked two teams in Florida in the 1990s appears to have finally developed. For the second straight year they are meeting in the playoffs and it should be another fun one. Once again a young, offensive powerhouse is coming for the crown that rests on the head of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Bolts fought off one contender in the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round, now they have to do it again against a team that may be even deeper than the Leafs.

Prior to the first round a lot of folks thought that the Panthers would run the Washington Capitals in four or five games. It didn’t exactly go as scripted with the Caps taking two out of the first three, including a 6-1 blowout in Game Three. Much like the Lightning, Florida got stronger as the series continued and managed to end it in six games (although the Game Six victory did take overtime). For the first time since 1996 the Panthers advanced to the second round of the playoffs.

The early struggles likely served as a bit of a wake-up call for a team that romped its way to the President’s Trophy with 122 points and a 58-18-6 record. They won their first 8 games and 10 of their first 11 to build an early points lead that they never relinquished.

Their secret to their success - goals, goals, goals, goals. They averaged 4.11 per game, by far the most in the league. With that kind of potent offense they were never out of a game. The Comeback Cats came from behind to win in an unfathomable 29 games, including five times when they were down three or more goals. No game is ever over when they are on the ice.

They added three more come-from-behind wins in the postseason as Washington scored first in the final three games of the series, all games won by the Panthers. In Game Five, Florida was down three goals before they ripped off five straight. Assume the first goal means nothing in the this series, because it doesn’t mean anything to Florida, and the Lightning aren’t likely to be rattled by an early deficit, either.

As for their head-to-head meetings this year, it was a mixed bag. In their four games against each other the Lighting posted a 2-2 record that included an overtime win, a blowout loss, and a blowout win. The Lightning were also part of that early season surge as they dropped the first game between the two on October 19th, 4-1.

The blowout loss has some conditions to it as well. Mainly the fact that Andre Vasilevskiy wasn’t available. Neither was Brian Elliott. The two goaltenders, along with Anthony Cirelli, Taylor Raddysh, Mikhail Sergachev, and Cal Foote were all out of the line-up due to COVID protocols. Max Lagace and Hugo Alnefelt tried to hold them off, but weren’t up to the task as Johnathan Huberdeau put up five points and Anthony Duclair scored twice.

The Lightning extracted a little revenge late in the season as they took them down, 8-4, in late April. In doing so the Lightning ended the Panthers 13-game winning streak and touched off a late-season slump that saw Florida lose 3 of their last 4 (5 out of 7 if you include the first 3 games of the Washington series).

This, however, is the postseason and regular season numbers can be tossed out of the window. For one thing, it’s going to come down to a battle of the goaltenders, as many playoff series do. In this case it will be Andrei Vasilevskiy vs. Sergei Bobrovsky.

Bob has the slightly better numbers after Round One with a .906 SV% and a 0.91 Goals Saved Above Expectation. Vasy is at .897 SV% and -0.3 GSAx. The good news for Lightning fans is that Vasilevskiy’s most recent game was his best as he posted an outstanding 2.42 GSAX in Game Seven against the Maple Leafs.

If you’re a fan of that stat, it’s the third highest mark he’s posted in the postseason over the last three seasons. The only time he posted a higher numbers was the 2.83 in the series clincher against Carolina last year and the 2.5 he posted in Game Five against the Dallas Stars in the Stanley Cup Final. Perhaps Playoff Vasy is just getting warmed up, which would be bad news for the Panthers.

Bobrovsky has been really solid all year (finally earning that $10 million per year contract) and has made saves that have keyed some of the Panthers comebacks. The Lightning got to him at times in last season’s playoffs and caused a little controversy in net for the Panthers. It’s unlikely that happens this year. Bob is the undisputed number one and coach Andrew Brunette is likely to stick with him no matter what happens. He’s played every minute so far and there is no doubt that will continue against the Lightning.

As for their offense, old friend Carter Verhaeghe has been on absolute fire so far in the post season. He’s posted six goals and six assists in six games and is shooting a lights-out 40%. All of those points have come at even strength. Oddly enough, the Panthers as a team haven’t scored on the power play, going 0-for-18 against the Capitals. The Lightning were an impressive 24-for-28 (87.5%) against the Maple Leafs shorthanded so that could be a spot where the Bolts might have an advantage (especially if the refs call it like they did in Games 1-4 in the Lightning series).

The Lightning converted at a 21.2% success rate with the extra skater (with 2 of their 7 goals coming at 5v3). Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman led the way with two power play goals a piece. They will have to make sure to maintain puck possession as Florida can be dangerous shorthanded, having scored 12 during the regular season.

Verhaeghe isn’t the only offensive threat on the team as the top-six of the Panthers may be among the best in the league. The addition of Claude Giroux has given them six players that can pretty much score from anywhere on the ice. It’ll make match-ups tough for Jon Cooper as he’s going to need multiple lines to step up defensively. If Braydon Point misses any length of time that complicates things even more.

If you include the goals Giroux scored in Philadelphia, all six of their top forwards topped the 20 goal mark with Aleksander Barkkov, Sam Reinhart, and Anthony Duclair topping 30 goals in the regular season. That’s a dynamic offense even if Duclair is out of the line-up (coach’s decision) like he was in their Game Six. If the top two lines for the teams cancel each other out, the Bolts could have an advantage with their bottom-six with Ross Colton and Nick Paul as unexpected sources of offense.

Defensively the top pairing of Aaron Ekblad and Ben Chiarot is solid and the second pairing of Mackenzie Weegar and Gustav Forsling might be slightly underrated. The Lightning have much more postseason experience on their blueline and Coach Cooper will likely rely heavily on the Ryan McDonagh/Erik Cernak pairing to shut down the top line while having Victor Hedman freed up to play against some of the Panthers other lines. Hedman was able to put up 7 points against the Maple Leafs (2 goals, 5 assists) and was a difference maker at times.

The absence of Point looms large over this series simply because of his effectiveness at both ends of the ice. With Anthony Cirelli the duo was able to hold their own against the Auston Matthews line and take them out of a few games. It’ll be interesting to see how Coach Cooper deals with the absence of his number one center, does he go 11/7 (assuming Jan Rutta is ready to return to action) or does Riley Nash draw into the line-up and Ross Colton see an increased role in the offense.

Something to keep an eye on in this series will be puck possession - shot attempts, unblocked shot attempts, high-danger chances, etc. Against the Leafs they were under 50% in all of those categories according to Natural Stat Trick. They still haven’t found the shutdown line that was so important to them last season, relying more on a team-wide effort to defend their own zone throughout the game.

Florida is likely to win the shot count contest in all of the games as they were above 50% in almost all of the possession stats in their opening round. The key stat for the Lightning will be the expected goals and high-danger chances (one of the stats Florida was under water in their series against Washington). Tampa Bay is going to try and keep the Florida shots from the perimeter and clean up the rebounds. If they control the front of the net like they did against Toronto in Game Six and Seven, they should find success.

Pay attention to how the Lightning cover their defensive zone, not the fact that they will likely spend a lot of time in it. If Vasy is making clean saves on the initial shots it means his teammates are keeping the front of his net clear and he’s getting clear looks. If they are scrambling around in front of him, they are going to have problems because they’re not in position to clear rebounds or block shots.

At the other end, winning face-offs and second effort on pucks will be key for the Lightning. They will continue to work the puck low-to-high with the blueliners launching pucks at the net. Tips and rebounds will be key so look for Alex Killorn, Ross Colton, Nick Paul, and Patrick Maroon to be key contributeurs on offense.

They also have to make sure they keep the Panthers in front of them. One of the keys to the Game Seven win was that they were able to negate the speed of the Maple Leafs forwards by not turning pucks over or making slow passes through the middle of the ice. Florida will be looking to pick those passes off and break the other way. They have the speed up front to give the Lightning defense fits. Puck management will be tremendously important in this series.

Also look for the Lightning to try and control the neutral zone. If the team is pressing at both bluelines they will be able to transition quickly to offense and perhaps catch the Panthers with numbers. Cases in point - these two goals.

First it’s Ryan McDonagh standing tall at the offensive blueline to keep the puck in, then creeping into a scoring position to rip home the one timer:

Anthony Cirelli short handed, plays the puck at the defensive blueline, but his teammates aren’t sagging way back either and it forces the pass a little earlier than Toronto would have wanted.

Much like we said about the Toronto series, the team that controls the middle of the ice will control the series.

Injury-wise it’s the Lightning that are a little more banged up. Brayden Point is the biggest concern and as of right now we don’t have an update. The same goes for Jan Rutta who hasn’t drawn into the line-up since Game One of the Toronto series. Expect Coach Cooper to provide a vague update on both of their conditions sometime in the next couple of days.

For the Panthers, they seem to be mostly healthy with only Mason Marchment likely to miss the game. He was out of Games Five and Six against Washington with an undisclosed injury. It also appears that Ekblad and Chiarot are playing through some lingering injuries. Both players left Game Six in the first period, but returned to play.

Finally, a personal note. Can we retire the “refs/league hate the Lightning” story line? If they did, is there anyway they call interference on Justin Holl in Game Seven? Are there bad/missed calls against the Lightning? Yes, yes there are plenty. The Lightning also get away with their fair share of bad/missed calls. The Lightning have been successful for the last nine playoff series because they don’t let those missed calls rattle them. They just kill off the penalty, or if they are the beneficiary of a questionable call, they score on the power play. So try not to get too worked up about it. It’ll only take years off of your life. Years that could be spent watching the Lightning win more Stanley Cups.

Also, expect there to be some borderline ugly hits. It happened last postseason and in the regular season. It will be key for the teams to avoid allowing things to escalate or to allow a Radko Gudas or Corey Perry to get under their skin. If there is a boarding or hit to the head, just make the offending team pay by scoring on the power play. That tends to end the nonsense rather quickly.

Enjoy the series. Enjoy the fact that two talented teams are going to face off and it’s up to two really good goalies to keep the puck out of the net. This game is supposed to be fun, so enjoy it (and try to be nice in the comments and on-line).

Prediction - Tampa Bay Lightning in six games.