For the first time in franchise history, the Florida Panthers will face their cross-state rivals, the Tampa Bay Lightning in a playoff series.
After finishing the 2020-2021 NHL regular season with 79 points in 56 games, the Panthers locked up the] second seed in the Discover Central Division, giving them home-ice advantage for their first round matchup against the Lightning. While Florida won the season series against the defending Stanley Cup Champions with a 5-2-1 record, the playoffs are a different monster.
Here are the five keys to the Panthers-Lightning playoff series.
Stay Out of the Box
It’s obvious that you don’t want to take penalties in a hockey game, but when you are playing the Tampa Bay Lightning, that’s all the more reason not to go down a man. In the final three games of the season Florida did a really good job of shutting down Tampa’s powerplay. The Lightning were 0-12 on the man advantage over that stretch.
However, Tampa still ranked NO. 8 in the league on the man advantage during the season, and they are expected to have captain Steven Stamkos and 2019 Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov back in the lineup sometime during the first round. With these two coming back alongside Brayden Point and Norris Trophy winner Victor Headman, their powerplay will be as lethal as ever.
Throughout the year Florida had an average penalty kill at best, ranking 17th in the NHL at 79.8 percent. Tampa knows how to put the puck in the net, keep them off the power play.
Use the Team’s Depth to your Advantage
Bill Zito did an amazing job constructing this Panthers team in his first season as GM. Four of the seven leading scorers on the team weren’t on the roster last season and Florida has dressed over 20 skaters who didn’t suit up in a game last year for the Cats. All four forward lines have the talent and skill to compete with Tampa.
Teams that have gone on to win the cup in the past have always relied on their bottom 6 to provide quality minutes down the stretch. Last year the Lightning relied on players like Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman to bring energy to the ice when the top 6 wasn’t on.
The Panthers have guys like Noel Acciari, Frank Vatrano and Patric Hornqvist who can go toe-to-toe with any line Tampa throws at them. Florida has a surplus of forwards who can come in and out of the lineup throughout a long and physical playoff series, this depth will prove to be beneficial in this matchup.
Get the Stars Rolling Early
Playoff hockey isn’t for the weak. The intensity of the game picks up, the physicality increases, and the goals become tougher to come by. The best thing for a team in a playoff series is to get their star players involved on the scoresheet early. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau have once again proven to be elite hockey players this season. The duo averaged over a point per game on the season and they both hit the 20 goal mark. But the longtime Panthers aren’t alone this year.
The offseason acquisitions of Carter Verhaeghe, Anthony Duclair, Patric Hornqvist and Alexander Wennberg have not only helped the Panthers this season, but it also took a large part of the offensive responsibilities off of Barkov and Huberdeau. Bill Zito also made a trade at the deadline for proven playoff performer and 2014 4th overall pick, Sam Bennett, from Calgary. Bennett has 15 points in 10 games this season for the Panthers and has 19 points in 30 career postseason games with the Flames.
Throughout the season they all played a huge part in getting Florida to the playoffs. If these guys can show up offensively early in the series, Tampa is going to have a hard time trying to shut them down over seven games.
Win the Goalie Battle
Whoever is in net for the Panthers in game 1 will be going up against 2019 Vezina winner Andrei Vasilevskiy. Vasilevskiy has once again proven to be one of the world’s top goalies this season, winning 31 of his 42 starts with a 2.21 GAA and a .925 save percentage. He has had a great year, but the Panthers have been one of the only teams in the league who consistently put multiple goals up on him, including nine total in their final two meetings of the season.
The Panthers have three goalies to choose from for this series. Sergei Bobrovsky won 19 of his 30 starts and has looked significantly better than he did last season for Florida. He has started the most games this season for the Panthers. Florida’s other goalie Chris Dreidger also had an impressive 2020-2021 campaign, winning 14 of his 23 starts and posting a .927 save percentage with a 2.07 GAA. Rookie Spencer Knight is also on the roster. The 20-year-old is 4-0-0 in his NHL career.
No matter who gets the crease for the majority of this series, they need to stand on their head. Tampa has the offensive firepower to score a few quick goals and run away with the game. You don’t want to be playing behind in the playoffs against the defending champions.
Goalies win championships and Florida has a few really talented netminders who can steal them a playoff series if needed.
Bring the Physicality
This Panthers team is different than any other team I have seen. This roster is physical, strong and hungry. In the final two games of the season, Florida needed three points to clinch home-ice advantage for the first round.
Tampa came to town and tried to bring the pressure to the Cats. Florida didn’t back down from the fight, or fights. On May 8, the Florida-Tampa game had 154 total penalty minutes and a large part of that was due to the bad blood between the two sides. Everytime Tampa came out aggressive, everyone on Florida answered the bell and the Cats took that game 5-1. The Panthers made the message clear that night, they weren’t going to let anyone beat them up at their home in front of their fans.
The BB&T Center will be at nearly 50 percent capacity for the first round. With the building rocking and the city excited, Florida will feed off of that energy and bring the game to Tampa.
What to Expect
Both teams have a lot to play for in this series. Tampa just won the cup and they want to defend it, not lose in the first round. Florida has little playoff experience and they just saw the only other NHL team in their state win the whole thing last year, they don’t want to be the little brother anymore. From what we saw over the eight regular season games, these two sides clearly don’t like each other. Expect a hard fought, extremely exciting and not so “polite’ series in this first round matchup between the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning.