Panthers learned from Lightning. It made them better. Now, they’re ready to beat Tampa.

·5 min read
David Santiago/dsantiago@miamiherald.com

As far back as he has talked about the Tampa Bay Lightning, Andrew Brunette has spoken about admiration and the lessons his Florida Panthers have learned from their in-state rival.

It goes back to last year when the Panthers fell to the Lightning in the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs, but really it can go back even further and range wider than just what happens on the ice. Florida’s upper management looks at Tampa Bay and how it was able to cultivate a loyal fan base in this state. Everyone across the NHL looks at the Lightning for lessons about how to build a roster and make success sustainable. Tampa Bay, Brunette said, is “what we want to be.”

“They really helped us,” the interim coach said. “I said this early in the year and a lot of the year: They helped make us a better team.”

A few months after the Panthers and Lightning met in the first round last year, Tampa Bay went on to win its second straight Stanley Cup and Florida went about trying to figure out a way to get past the Lightning in 2022 after the best regular season in franchise history.

In the second round of the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Panthers’ lessons will be put to the test. After winning a series for the first time since it reached the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals, Florida will get a rematch with Tampa Bay in Round 2, starting Tuesday at 7 p.m. with Game 1 at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise. It’s what “a lot of guys wanted,” defenseman Brandon Montour said Sunday, and the Panthers swear they’re a different team than they were last season.

How to watch Panthers-Lightning second-round series, with full schedule and ticket info

They’re deeper, forward Sam Bennett pointed out. Star goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has maybe never been better for Florida, Brunette said, and star defenseman Aaron Ekblad is back after missing the 2021 series with an injury. Most simply, the Panthers are better basically across the board, as their Presidents’ Trophy — the first in franchise history — proves.

Above all else, they now know how to win in the Stanley Cup playoffs. After the Panthers spent the first week of Round 1 openly lamenting how nervous they were, Florida finished off the Washington Capitals in six games — advancing faster than anyone else in the Eastern Conference — and the weight of 26 years of postseason failures is gone.

“We’re definitely more confident than before the first series. It’s an exciting time,” Bennett said. “Playoffs is a different beast for everyone. It’s a lot more intense and there’s more pressure, so I think getting through that first series was big for our team and we’re playing with a lot of confidence right now.”

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Last year, the Panthers didn’t have the same poise. In Game 1, Bennett committed a costly charging penalty in the third period, giving the Lightning a chance to score a game-tying power-play goal with seven minutes left and Florida never recovered. The NHL suspended Bennett for Game 2, the higher-seeded Panthers lost again at home and never led in the series, bowing out in six games.

This year, Florida got out of the opening round despite dropping 2 of 3 to start the series, going 0 of 18 on the power play and falling behind in each of the final three games, and they did it against the Capitals, who won the Cup in 2018. The Panthers are now the favorites to come out of the East, according to FanDuel.

“We showed our resiliency, showed a lot of things that make us a great team,” said Brunette, who took over as the interim in the first month of the season after former coach Joel Quenneville resigned amid revelations about his mishandling of a 2010 sexual-assault allegation while he was coaching the Chicago Blackhawks. “We’re going to need a lot of that.”

They also will need a significantly better performance from Bobrovsky. If the 33-year-old Russian can’t deliver one significantly different from last year, it won’t matter how much deeper or more poised Florida is.

Last year, Bobrovsky gave up 10 goals on just 63 shots and Quenneville benched him after three games, turning first to fellow goaltender Chris Driedger — now with the Seattle Kraken — and then Spencer Knight, 20. Star goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy gave Tampa Bay a massive advantage in net.

This year began with a goalie competition between Bobrovsky and Knight, who began the season with Calder Memorial Trophy aspirations, and eventually became a clear hierarchy as Bobrovsky recaptured some of his old All-Star form in the third season of his seven-year, $70 million deal. Vasilevskiy was still a cut above Bobrovsky in the regular season, but Bobrovsky actually has the better save percentage so far in these Cup playoffs.

“This is the best I’ve probably seen him,” Brunette said.

No matter what happens, the winner will be the state the Panthers and Lightning share.

Until last year, Florida and Tampa Bay had never met in the playoffs. Now, it’s two years of chances to build a rivalry 28 years in the making.

After the Lightning joined the NHL in 1992 and the Panthers in 1993, the two teams were only rivals because of geography, only even qualifying for the postseason simultaneously four times, as Florida spent more than two decades in irrelevance, while Tampa Bay racked up three championships.

When the NHL realigned its postseason format in 2013 to create more intradivisional matchups, it was with recurring series like this one in mind.

In the regular season, the Lightning led the NHL in attendance. In the playoffs, the Panthers have led the entire league.

It has all built to this.

“Obviously, we know what happened last year,” Bennett said. “We wouldn’t take it any other way.”

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