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Lightning – Panthers Playoff Preview

The reward for the Tampa Bay Lightning for beating the Toronto Maple Leafs is here. They get to play the President’s Trophy winning cross state Florida Panthers. Here is the second round playoff preview. Win this series and the Lightning will play in their third consecutive Conference Finals.  For the Panthers, win and you took down the reigning back to back Stanley Cup champs. 

This series is a rematch of last year’s first round playoff series won by the Lightning in six games. Over the last two seasons, there was a discernible gap between the Lightning and all comers. How else can you explain their 16-6 and 16-7 record in the last two postseasons? Based on the regular seasons enjoyed by Toronto, Carolina and Florida in the Eastern Conference that gap has all but evaporated. There is no doubt this will be a battle. Let’s take a closer look at this series and who will come out on top on this playoff preview. 

Offense

During the regular season, Florida was the top scoring team in the league. Averaging 4.11 goals per game was over a half goal a game than the Lightning. In the first round, the Lightning averaged 3.29 to the Panthers 3.33 goals per game. Florida is learning that scoring in the playoffs can be more challenging than the regular season. In Tampa’s roster, we have most of the usual suspects to put up points. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov need to help make up for the injured Brayden Point. Hopefully we’ll see Point before the end of this series. 

Florida’s top point producer was Jonathan Huberdeau. Scoring more points than anybody in the league not named Connor McDavid, he enjoyed a career year. So far in the playoffs, he’s only tallied 3 points in 6 games.In their 7 games against Toronto, the Lightning have eight players who have scored more points than Huberdeau.  As with most playoff series, the secondary scoring can tilt the series one way or the other. 

Florida only had one player from their bottom six who scored at least a half point a game in the playoffs – Sam Reinhart. The Lightning have all three players from their third line scoring at least a half point a game this postseason. Speaking of Tampa’s third line, while most Lightning fans still miss last season’s third line, pay attention to the current third line. Brandon Hagel, Ross Colton and Game 7 hero Nick Paul were the best forechecking line in the Toronto series. I’m of the belief that this line is just getting started. 

Advantage: Even

Defense

In the regular season, the Lightning gave up 2.78 goals a game. Only slightly better than the Panthers 2.95 average. In the first round, the number of goals against was in Florida’s favor. They gave up 3.17 goals against while the Lightning gave up 3.43. This may look like a big Florida advantage but Tampa played the second best offense in Toronto. While Washington was a top 10 offense, it wasn’t as potentially explosive as Toronto. 

Both clubs have a top-flight defenseman in Victor Hedman for the Lightning and Aaron Ekblad for the Panthers. They also have a couple of very good defensemen in their defensive corps. For Florida, MacKenzie Weegar and Gustav Forsling eat up D minutes. Tampa has Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak. Offensively, both teams are getting virtually the same postseason production from their defenses.  Tampa has 14 points from their defensemen in the playoffs while Florida has 13 from their blue liners. 

Where the games can be won is on the defensive side. Just because a sports adage is old doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant. Defense wins championships. Here’s a good indication of the team defense played by these two teams in the first round. Tampa had 67 blocked shots or 9.5 blocks per game. Florida had 42 blocks or 6 per game. In fact, McDonagh has 21 blocked shots thus far in the playoffs which is half of the Panthers total. This is how the Lightning allowed 8 goals in the last three games against Toronto after giving up 13 to them in the first three games. 

Advantage: Lightning 

Special Teams

The two teams were virtually tied in both power play and penalty kill effectiveness in the regular season. But this is the postseason. Through the first round, the Lightning’s power play is succeeding at 21.2%. They have also killed 85.7% of their penalties. To say Florida’s special teams struggled in the first round is an understatement. In 16 power play opportunities against Washington, Florida has not scored with the extra man. On the penalty kill, they haven’t fared much better, killing only 70.8% of their penalties. If the Panthers cannot get their special teams to the 80/20 mark – killing 80% and scoring at least 20% on the power play they will struggle in this series. This was the easiest part of this playoff preview. Florida has to get their power play working or it will be a shorter series than most anticipate. 

Advantage: Lightning 

Goaltending 

Both teams have elite goalies. Both goalies have Vezina Trophies and both have been in their share of playoff series. The major difference you’ll find between these two is in career playoff numbers. Florida’s Sergei Bobrovsky has started in 42 playoff games. Winning 17 games and losing 25, while saving 90% of the shots he faced and allowing 3.18 goals per game. Conversely, Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy has started 83 games winning 53 games and losing 32, while saving 92.2% of the shots he faced and allowing 2.3 goals a game. 

Safe to say that Vasilevskiy is a postseason performer and Bobrovsky is a postseason question mark. Yes, he guided the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2019 when they swept the Lightning in the first round but then promptly lost in the second round. Other than this year, that was the only time Bobrovsky led his team past the first round. We all have heard about Vasilveskiy’s playoff record after the Lightning lose a playoff game. We all know by now how he pitched 5 consecutive shutouts when his team had the opponents in an elimination game. This would have been six shutouts in a row had Toronto not scored 1 in Game 7 last Saturday. 

Advantage: Lightning

Coaching

Lightning coach Jon Cooper already has two Cups to his name. He is second all-time in winning percentage for coaches behind the bench for at least 500 games. The only coach with a higher winning percentage than Cooper’s .650 is Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman at .657. Cooper is on a stratosphere than few coaches ever reach.  In the postseason, the coaching staffs can play a significant role. In this playoff preview, give me the guy who has accomplished what Cooper has behind an NHL bench.

The Panther’s coach is Andrew Burnette. He took over for Joel Quenneville seven games into this season. Quenneville, you may recall, resigned for his part in the shameful Chicago Blackhawks protection of their video coach sexual assault on a player. Burnette in his first year as an NHL coach led his team to the President’s Trophy. He’s also undefeated in playoff series. But to think that this aspect of the series matchup is even is ludicrous. 

Advantage: Lightning

 

Playoff Preview and Prediction

Like last season, this series will most likely be the best in the second round. The Battle of Alberta (Edmonton vs. Calgary) should entertain but the Lightning-Panthers series will build on the rivalry from last season. That said, Lightning in 6

In the other series:
Carolina over NY Rangers in 7

Calgary over Edmonton in 6

Colorado over St. Louis in 7

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