The Tampa Bay lightning are ready to begin the defense of their Stanley Cup championship from last season. That officially starts Sunday night with game one of their opening-round series with the Florida Panthers.
The Lightning will be the road team for this series as Florida won the last two regular-season games to gain the home-ice advantage. Coach Jon Cooper talked about the advantage of being the home team in the playoffs.
“I’ve been a part of playoff series that we’ve won when we’ve had home ice, and I’ve been a part of playoff series that we’ve lost with home ice. So it’s not a big deal to us. We know what we have to do to win a series, and I don’t think it’s going to come down to whatever team has home-ice advantage.”
The Lightning was the highly favored home team back in 2019 against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the opening round of the playoffs and was swept right out of the playoffs.
The Panthers won the season series from the Lightning five games to three by winning the last two games of the regular season in Sunrise.
The Panthers are making their first playoff appearance since 1996 when they made it to the Stanley Cup Finals.
This is also the first time that these teams from Florida have met in the playoffs. With the Panthers much improved this season, it should make for a very entertaining series.
This will be a Lightning team that will be as close to 100 percent that it has been all season. Nikita Kucherov has missed the entire season, and Steven Stamkos, who missed the final month of the season, are both healthy and will be ready to play in game one.
Kucherov is excited to be back on the ice and can’t wait till Sunday night. Coach Jon Cooper is eager to get one of the best players in the world back in the lineup.
“You know the body’s rested, but he’s still coming off an injury that we weren’t sure we would be getting him back in the first round. So he’s got to get his timing, and there’s going to be parts of the game that will probably frustrate him because he knows in his head he can make a play, but because you haven’t played, you’ve got to catch up to the game.”
“I don’t think it’ll take him too long to get back in. But until you get in the trenches and feel somebody other than your teammates hitting you, there is a difference. And so, hopefully getting through those first couple shifts and he knows what to do, where to go and the feeling of opposing teams’ pressure, and he’ll be fine.”
The Panthers have not seen this team as full strength this season. Panthers coach Joel Quenneville talked about the return of Kucherov and Stamkos for the Lightning.
“All of a sudden, you think you’re playing Texas Hold’Em, and now you’ve got a pair of aces right off the bat. It’s a pretty good addition to your team. You get them back together; suddenly, your penalty kill will have different looks on it that you got to be aware of. Matchups, you got to be aware when those guys are on the ice, not that you don’t have to worry about other guys when they’re on the ice, but their balance throughout their lineup is dangerous, their quickness, their possession, their intelligence.”
Defensemen Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh are also back for the Lightning after missing time in the last two regular-season games.
The Lightning stumbled down the stretch and did not play like a team entering the playoffs. But this team has been there and has all the confidence in the world.
Pat Maroon spoke about confidence in the locker room this week.
“I’m a firm believer if you feel confident and you have road success all year, and you feel confident on the road, you’re gonna have success. It depends, but I just feel like a home advantage. I don’t think it’s there anymore. I think teams go out there and play. I think away teams actually feel, like, the crowd and energy in the other barn. Maybe it’s more electric, and they get more pumped up for it than they would at home.”
The key for this series will be goaltending. Andrei Vasilevskiy is the number one goaltender in Tampa, and there are no questions about that.
Despite his struggles against the Panthers this season (2-4, with a .896, save percentage and allowing 20 goals), Vasilevskiy led the league in wins with 31. His save percentage of .925 and his goals-against-average of 2.21 is better than the numbers from two years ago when he won the Vezina Trophy.
In last year’s Stanley Cup Playoff’s Vasilevskiy had a 1.90 goals-against average. That was the best of any goaltender with at since 2013.
The Panther’s goaltending situation is a bit more up in the air. Sunday night Sergei Bobrovsky will be in the nets. Bobrovsky was 19-8-2 with a 2.91 goals-against average and .906 save percentage.
Panthers coach Joel Quenneville had Bobrovsky on a short leash most of the season. Chris Driedger made 23 starts during the season, compiling a record of 14-6-3 with three shutouts, a 2.07 GAA, with a .927 save percentage.
Rookie Spencer Knight was 4-0 with a 2.32 GAA and .919 save percentage in four games.
If Bobrovsky struggles, Quenneville won’t hesitate to pull Bobrovsky as he did during the regular season and replace him with Driedger.
The Panthers are also a potent offensive team as they averaged 3.36 goals a game during the regular season, with 35 shots on goal per game.
Jonathan Huberdeau, Alexander Barkov, Sam Bennett, and former Lightning Carter Verhaeghe lead the way offensively for the Panthers.
This will be a tough series. It will be a long series as both teams know one another very well. The Lightning has more playoff experience than the Panthers. That will work to Tampa’s advantage as the series goes along. Tampa also has the edge in goaltending.
“There are no secrets, and there will be no surprises.” according to Jon Cooper. “You know the players, and we’ve played them so many times. So I don’t want to say it’s easier because nothing in the playoffs is ever easy, but I think guys know what to expect.”
I like the Lightning to win in seven games and move on in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.