As if the nastiness of the Toronto series wasn’t enough, now the Lightning gets to play the in-state rivals, the Florida Panthers, in round two of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
During the Bolts’ second Stanley Cup playoff run, the rivalry heated up last summer when the Lightning eliminated the Panthers in six games. Since then, the rivalry has been intense and physical, and I expect the first couple of games in the series will be no exception.
This year the Lightning and the Panthers split four games, with the Lightning winning 8-4 in Sunrise in late April.
Since the beginning of the 2020-21 season, the Lightning and the Panthers have split eighteen games, with each team winning nine games.
The Panthers defeated the Washington Capitals four games to two to advance to the second round, while the Lightning took out Toronto in seven games in their first round series.
With their game seven win against the Leafs, the Bolts become just the sixth franchise in NHL history to win nine straight playoff series.
This will not be an easy series for the Lightning. The Panthers had the best record in the NHL and were also the highest-scoring team in the league, with 4.11 goals per game.
It will take a great defensive effort to slow the down this high octane offense.
The Panthers are led offensively by former Lightning Carter Verhaeghe, who led the team with six goals in their first-round matchup with Washington.
Panther Patric Hornqvist said that Verhaeghe was the best player on the ice in games five and six.
Jonathan Huberdeau has been a thorn in the side of the Lightning as well scoring ten goals against the Bolts in last years playoff series.
Sergei Bobrovsky will be in the net for the Panthers. Bobrovsky was the goalie on the Columbus Blue Jackets team, which swept the Lightning in four straight in 2019.
With the series win against Washington, the former Vezina Trophy winner has won two playoff series in his career.
Last year, Bobrovsky struggled against the Bolts going 1-2 and allowing ten goals in their playoff series before being replaced by Spencer Knight.
The Lightning was led offensively by Nikita Kucherov, who had eight points in the Toronto series. Ross Colton and Ondrej Palat led the Lightning with three goals each in the series.
Andrei Vasilevskiy will be in the net for the Lightning. Vasilevskiy did not have the regular season stats we were expecting but still managed to go 39-18-5 with a 2.49 goals against average.
In the opening round against the Maple Leafs, Vasilevskiy posted a .897 save percentage, with a 3.04 GAA. Those were the worst numbers that Vasilevskiy has posted in the postseason, but he was huge in game seven, making key saves and reminding everyone why he is still the best goaltender in the world.
Victor Hedman talked about Vasilevskiy and what he means to the team after the clinching game seven win. “We’re spoiled, and I think everyone is spoiled watching him play. It’s easy to look up the stats and everything, but some saves he’s made throughout the series have been key.”
In-game one, the Lightning will be without Braydon Point. Point suffered a lower body injury in game seven against Toronto and is listed as day-to-day. There is a good chance he will also miss game two.
On Monday, Riley Nash skated in Point’s absence on the power play during the Lightning practice.
Many in the national media are picking the Panthers to beat the Lightning in this series.
The Panthers had the best record in the NHL this season, finishing with 122 points, but what they do not have is a championship pedigree on the team.
That is where the Lightning has the advantage. We saw that come through for the Bolts in game seven in the Toronto series. The Lightning knows how to win the close games and close out a series.
That will be the difference-maker in this series.
And that’s why I am picking the Lightning to take out the Panthers in six games and return to the ECF for the third consecutive season.