FINALLY! The wait is over. For the first time in either of these organization’s histories, we will have a Tampa Bay Lightning vs Florida Panthers playoff match-up. Looking back, it’s shocking that these two teams have no natural history with each other. Tampa Bay has been a powerhouse for at least the past 10 years, while Florida has struggled mightily on the other side of the state. Yet, that all seems to have come to an end as the National Hockey League and its fans will finally witness the Battle for the Sunshine State.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs Florida Panthers First Round Playoffs Preview
As one of the more anticipated matchups heading into the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Florida Panthers find themselves in a bit of a David vs. Goliath situation. Even more so, if you were to look at the regular-season games between these two teams, shockingly, the Panthers were able to take the regular-season series over Tampa Bay 5-2-1. Despite the Lightning missing some significant pieces, the Panthers took advantage of their foes when they could. With the first Sunshine State Showdown beginning on Sunday night, all eyes will be on the state of Florida for the first round.
Tampa Bay’s Superstars Return
As the defending Stanley Cup Champions, Tampa Bay will be 100 percent healthy for the first time all year. Yep, you read that right. Even without superstars Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, the ‘Bolts’ still managed to finish eighth in the entire league with 75 points. That’s regardless of where they end up at the end of the regular season. Everybody knows that the playoffs are a completely different story. If you can make it, anything can happen.
With that, the Panthers will truly be tested with the return of these two stud players. Before his regular season ended, Stamkos was on track to be one of the leading scorers on the team again. Recording 17 goals and 34 points in 38 games, Stamkos still ranks fifth on the team in regular-season points. Going to show that even in his 13th NHL season, he is still as productive as ever.
On the other hand, the return of Kucherov is what Panthers’ fans should be worried about—scoring 29 or more goals since his 2014-15 season. Kucherov is a highly deadly weapon that the Bolts have returning, which will come in handy mainly on the power-play—ranked ninth during the regular season at 22.4 percent.
Adding Kucherov back to the line-up gives the Lightning a significant advantage for the playoffs. If the Panthers want any hope at winning this series, they absolutely must shut down both Stamkos and Kucherov early on. On the back end, it looks like Tampa Bay will also be getting back Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh for the playoffs as well. In comparison, their injuries were much less significant compared to Stamkos and Kucherov. Their additions bring this team closer to 100 percent for the first time all year.
Florida Becomes the Land of Misfit Toys
Heading into the pandemic-ridden season, the Florida Panthers brought many new faces both on and off the ice. They added first-time general manager Bill Zito along with a few others to the front office. The Panthers’ organization completely turned itself around in the blink of an eye. Not only was Zito and company able to change the team on the ice; they were also able to create an authentic culture down in Sunrise, Florida, finally. After years of disappointment, Zito was able to orchestrate what feels like the perfect combination of players.
Between free agency, the trade deadline, or the waiver wire, the first time GM was able to bring in 14 different players. Of those players, 11 of them are considered regulars within the line-up. Whether it’s the guys that needed a change of scenery like Sam Bennett, Alexander Wennberg, Anthony Duclair, or Patric Hornqvist leading the charge on the front end; or hidden gems like Carter Verhaeghe, Gustav Forsling, or Noah Juulsen. Zito’s new additions have made the team harder to play against from top to bottom. Something the Panthers have lacked forever.
The most significant piece to the Florida Panthers puzzle has been Aleksander Barkov. Amid a Selke-like season, Barkov is a whole new person on the ice. Beyond dominate in both ends of the ice, Barkov has taken that next step in his stardom and captaincy. At the prime age of 25 years old, ‘Sasha’ Barkov played in one of his best seasons yet. Whether it is his production, 58 points in 50 games, or his possession numbers, 59.4 Corsi For percent; or his underlying numbers of 26.2 Expected Goals For and only 9.8 Expected Goals Against.
It has become undeniable how vital Barkov is to this team. Now it’s time to take that magic and help carry the Panthers to the Promised Land.
The Men in the Crease
This becomes arguably one of the biggest storylines of this series. The goaltending match-up of Sergei Bobrovsky and Chris Driedger vs. Andrei Vasilevskiy could make all the difference. During the regular season, Vasilevskiy did not do great against the Panthers. In the six games he started for Tampa, ‘Vasy’ went on to go 2-4 against Florida. To make things worse on the Tampa Bay netminder, he does not have the luxury of a more than capable backup. During the past five-seasons, Vasilevskiy has played in more than 3/4 of the regular season games.
That is amazing, considering how deep all of those playoffs runs were and how much he played. The Lightning needs to be careful they do not overwork him during this series. Out of all the teams the Lightning played this season, Vasilevskiy’s record is the worst against Florida. That could be an unexpected edge to the Panthers.
On the opposite end of the ice, the Panthers have the luxury of having quality goaltenders to back each other up, with both Chris Driedger and Sergei Bobrovsky playing very well this season. The biggest issue for Florida on this end of things will be who gets the nod each game. While we expect Bobrovsky to get the start, now is not the time to play politics. Yes, he is looked at as the starter, but who knows who coach Q will ride?
With Bobrovsky going 3-2 against Tampa and Driedger going 2-0-1 against them, it’s safe to say that either goaltender is ready for Tampa. They are having the luxury of replacing a 19-8-2 Bobrovsky with a 14-6-3 Chris Driedger. This may be the Panthers’ best bet to finally make it past the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It cannot be repeated enough, but NHL fans everywhere are excited to witness the Battle for Florida… finally. A series that has been long in the making has finally come to fruition as one of the more exciting matchups this postseason. No matter who you root for, an actual best of seven between two of the top teams in the league this year is something we can all look forward to. As Game One will kick off Sunday night, the Tampa Bay Lightning vs Florida Panthers first round will be one for the ages. In comparison, Tampa tries to become the tenth NHL team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups. Florida will do everything they can to knock them off course.
Florida in seven.