This is how an NHL Rivalry begins. In the postseason. Despite having 55 years in combined existence as NHL franchises, this is a first. We know the Tampa Bay Lightning will meet the Florida Panthers in the postseason for the first time. Ever.
Two teams, same state. Approximately 250 miles apart. One team (Lightning) entered the league in the 1992-93 season, the other (Panthers) followed the very next year. Both teams have enjoyed success though big brother with two Stanley Cups holds the advantage currently. So, it is finally here. Lightning vs. Panthers. In a playoff series. Clearly, the most important game and series played by these two organizations. Their first round series begins Sunday night. Here’s hoping it becomes an annual event.
Early Stages of an NHL Rivalry
There were years when the Panthers were very good. They were good right out of the gate. For almost a quarter century, the Panthers held the NHL record for best inaugural NHL season. That record was shattered by the Vegas Golden Knights. They made the Stanley Cup Final in their third year of existence. It was their first postseason and they almost ran the table. But in their 27 year history, they have made the postseason only six times.
It took Tampa four seasons to qualify for the playoffs. This was the same season the Panthers made the Cup Final. This is when the rivalry talk began with hockey fans in the Sunshine State. Being about a four hour drive away helps. It’s natural as one of the factors in a good old fashioned NHL rivalry is proximity.
Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh will all play in Game 1 of this series. The Panthers didn’t see any of these star players in those last two wins of the regular season. It’s one thing to beat Fredrik Claesson on an odd man rush than trying the same with McDonagh. Hedman isn’t Luke Schenn and that is no knock against Schenn. I can safely write that about 99.9% of NHL defensemen. Ondrej Palat has a good one-timer. It isn’t as powerful as the one possessed by either Stamkos or Kucherov.
Florida has some offensive potency with its top line of Aleksander Barkov, Anthony Duclair and former Lightning, Carter Verhaege. Tampa counters with more effective lines especially with the return of Stamkos and Kucherov to bolster their top two lines. Florida did add Sam Bennett at the trade deadline and he has bolstered the second line. Bennett is a game time decision for Game 1 and will hurt the Panthers if he cannot lace them up.
Defense Wins Championships
On defense, the Lightning have the reigning Conn Smythe trophy winner in Hedman. We’ve seen him carry this franchise on his back last year. Hedman also has arguably the best defensive corps around him since he arrived 12 seasons ago. McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev, Erik Cernak, David Savard, Jan Rutta, Schenn and Cal Foote are a very deep group.
For the Panthers, their biggest name among their blueliners was Aaron Ekblad. He was hurt in a game in late March with a terrible leg injury and will miss this postseason. Gustav Forsling and Mackenzie Weeger as their top defensive pairing just don’t put fear in other teams. That’s why Florida plays a stifling team defense. Their forwards are active in the defensive zone and will make it difficult for the high octane Lightning offense.
On special teams, the Lightning have a decided edge. They were the fourth best penalty killing team this season. Despite the late season struggle, their power play finished ninth overall. The Panthers just struggled. Ekblad’s injury hurt both units. Finishing 15th on the power play and 17th on the penalty kill. If the series is determined here, that does not bode well for Florida.
The goalie matchup is classic. Two Russian goalies who are among the best in the league. Andrei Vasilevskiy for Tampa and Sergei Bobrovsky for the Panthers. Both can carry their team but except for a first round sweep that we won’t talk about, Bobrovsky has NEVER won a playoff series. Vasilevskiy won four straight series last postseason and is 7-3 in playoff series for his career. Bobrovsky is 1-5 for his career in postseason series.
Crystal Ball Time
So, what will be the outcome? I think the Lightning get a huge boost with the addition of a healthy Kucherov and Stamkos. Will this be the extra push the Lightning needs to close out the Cats? Will Exblad’s injury hurt the Panthers more now than in the regular season?
This year’s Panthers are for real. Over the last few seasons, we have seen teams play the Lightning with too much awe. Sure, the Lightning have been a very good hockey club over the last few seasons. Arguably the best in the league. The Panthers play the Lightning as if they don’t give a hoot how good they may be. Pre-season or regular season. Florida plays Tampa as the little brother always plays the big brother. With heart and desire but not enough talent.
There are also two good coaches in this series in Joel Quenneville and Jon Cooper. Coach Q needs no introduction to most fans. He has more wins and NHL games coached than anyone not named Scotty Bowman. He won three Cups as coach of the Chicago Blackhawks. All this as coach for the so-called team of the decade (2010-2019). That was then.
This is now. Cooper is coach of the reigning Cup champions who in this postseason begin their bid for team of this decade. They can really make this statement in this series where they don’t have the home ice advantage.
This will be a very good series and the big brother will continue to put the little brother in their place. Lightning in six but watch out. Little brother is going to go through a growth spurt in the next few years and things could change. Not now, but if this NHL rivalry takes hold. For many years to come.
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