While hockey fans prepare for an exciting Battle of Alberta series in the Western Conference, one of the NHL's newer rivalries in the East will be on display for a second straight postseason.
Starting Tuesday evening, the series dubbed "The Battle of Florida" will take center stage in Round 2, showcasing two of the league’s top rosters in the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers.
These two high-flying clubs met in the first-round of last year's Stanley Cup Playoffs and gave us a thrilling six-game series, and we are likely in store for more of that same high intensity action this time around. Having won back-to-back Stanley Cups, the Lightning are as feared as anyone in the league, though the Panthers are no pushovers themselves, having won the Presidents’ Trophy this season with an outstanding 58-18-6 record.
In last year's playoffs, the Lightning came out of the gate hot, taking a 2-0 series lead on the Panthers despite starting on the road. The Panthers were able to respond with a win in Game 3, before being drubbed 6-2 in Game 4. Though they were able to extend the series with a Game 5 victory, it didn’t matter in the end as the Lightning closed things out on home ice with a 4-0 victory.
Though the loss was a frustrating one for the Panthers, they showed positive signs in last years postseason. Perhaps most exciting of all was that star forwards Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov didn’t shy away from the big stage, posting a combined 17 points over six games.
There was plenty of bad blood between these two in the playoffs last year as well, which only helped add to this thrilling new rivalry. What seemed to really start things off was a hit delivered by Sam Bennett on Blake Coleman, which not only resulted in a two-minute minor for charging, but also a one-game suspension.
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Let’s take a look at how the rivals stack up in this highly anticipated series.
This season, things appear to be even more promising for the Panthers. Not only will they have their number one defenceman in Aaron Ekblad this time around, after a leg injury ended his 2020-21 campaign prematurely, but they also added several offensive weapons last offseason in players like Sam Reinhart and Anthony Duclair. On top of that, both Carter Verhaeghe and Mason Marchment have shown offensive growth, while rookie Anton Lundell recorded 44 points in just 65 games. Oh, and did I mention that they were able to add Claude Giroux at the trade deadline? Safe to say, there is a reason why their 337 goals led the league by a wide margin this season.
The main question surrounding this Panthers team is goaltending. Despite having a relatively nice bounce back season after his first two disappointing seasons in southern Florida, Sergei Bobrovsky has developed a reputation for crumbling in the playoffs. He did exactly that last year, posting a cringeworthy 5.33 goals against average along with a .841 save percentage in three games before being replaced by Spencer Knight. The good news is that he did look better in this year's opening round versus the Washington Capitals, something he will need to continue moving forward if this Panthers team is to eliminate the Lightning.
This team is as good as any that we have seen in recent years, and their Stanley Cup rings from both 2020 and 2021 prove just that. Many questioned whether or not they had played too much hockey over the course of the past two seasons to be successful in the playoffs this year, but they shut down those doubts with an impressive opening round win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Up front, it could be argued that the Lightning don’t have as many offensive weapons as the Panthers, though they still boast a ton of punch in players like Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Alex Killorn. One other big factor will be defenceman Victor Hedman, who has once again been selected as a finalist for the Norris Trophy and is coming off of a career best 20-goal, 85-point season.
Also in their favour is the fact that they have the best goaltender in the world in Andrei Vasilevskiy. As good as he has been in the regular season year in and year out, he manages to dial it up even more in the playoffs, notably earning the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the 2021 Stanley Cup finals. Despite having a few off games against the Maple Leafs in round one, he is as clutch as they come, allowing just one goal over his past six series-clinching games.
Regular Season Head-to-Head
These two teams met four times this season, and to no surprise, there was a plenty of offence, with a combined 34 goals being scored. The Panthers were able to win two of the four games, while also recording a single point in a 3-2 overtime loss back in early November.
To no surprise, Jonathan Huberdeau led the two teams in points over the four games with seven, while Hedman came close with six of his own. Kucherov recorded five points despite only appearing in the final game between the two teams.
One thing to keep an eye on for both teams is their injury situation. The most notable involves the Lightning, as Point is currently being listed as doubtful for Game 1 due to a lower-body injury he sustained in Game 7 versus the Maple Leafs. Though he initially returned shortly after the incident, he played just one more shift before going on to watch the remainder of the game from the bench.
As for the Panthers, they are dealing with a lower-body injury to forward Mason Marchment, which is expected to keep him out of the lineup for Game 1. The 26-year-old missed the final three games of the opening round with the ailment, which head coach Andrew Brunette said has been bugging him since the regular season.
Tough Series to Predict
As far as odds go, the Panthers are favoured to win this series, though you’d struggle to find anyone who would suggest it will come easily. This Lightning team showed in the opening round that they are very serious in their aspirations of winning their third straight Stanley Cup, meaning they will be a very difficult out. With that said, the Panthers have been one of the leagues best regular season teams over the past two years, and will have plenty of motivation to eliminate their biggest rival and make a run at a championship.
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