2021 Stanley Cup Playoff Preview: Panthers vs. Lightning

Jennifer Botterill, Justin Bourne and Ryan Leslie joins Tim & Friends to preview the Central Division playoffs, where a Lightning repeat will depend on Kucherov and Stamkos' status, and where even average goaltending could make the Canes favourites.

For the first time in league history, we’ve got an all-Florida playoff series.

And this one’s gonna be fun.

Not only are the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning two of the best offensive units, they’re also two of the more physical teams — and if their final two matchups of the regular season taught us anything, it’s that we’re in for an intense, physical series between these in-state foes.

Here’s what you need to know ahead of the first-round series between Florida and Tampa Bay.

Think you know how this year's playoffs will unfold? Before every round, from Round 1 to the Stanley Cup Final, predict the winners and number of games for each series and answer a few prop questions.

ADVANCED STATS

(5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick)

Panthers: 53.46 CF% (5th), 55.66 GF% (7th), 92.62 SV% (4th), 7.90 SH% (20th), 1.005 PDO (T-11th)

Lightning: 52.39 CF% (9th), 53.37 GF% (12th), 92.11 SV% (10th), 8.43 SH% (11th), 1.005 PDO (T-11th)

TEAM STATS

Panthers: 20.5 PP% (15th), 79.8 PK% (17th), 3.36 GF/G (4th), 2.70 GA/G (9th)

Lightning: 22.4 PP% (9th), 84.2 PK% (4th), 3.21 GF/G (8th), 2.59 GA/G (6th)

Head-to-head record

Panthers: 5-3
Lightning: 3-5

THE SKINNY

As we’ve seen over the course of their eight regular-season meetings, there’s no love lost between these neighbours. In fact, it almost feels like this series is already underway — the clubs finished off the regular season with a pair of bouts against one another with home-ice advantage on the line, giving us a glimpse of what’s to come.

Prepare for penalties. Last Saturday’s matchup, the fight-filled contest before the grand finale, saw referees issue a combined 154 penalty minutes (including nine misconducts).

In one corner, we’ve got the champs. Coming off perhaps the toughest title to win last summer in the bubble, the Lightning get the benefit of the doubt because of that experience — not to mention the fact that, with the exception of some depth defencemen like Zach Bogosian and Kevin Shattenkirk, the club managed to mostly keep its winning group intact.

In the other corner, we’ve got the team that’s constantly toiled in the shadows of their Floridian foes. The Panthers haven’t won a playoff series since 1996, but a revamped roster and new, winning identity — even in the wake of losing top defenceman Aaron Ekblad to injury — make them a force in the Central, no longer the little brother to Tampa Bay.

When we think of Tampa, we think of speed and scoring. But it’s Florida that’s got the edge in that department this year. The Panthers average a fourth-best 3.36 goals scored per game in 2020-21, and are shooting at a pace unmatched league-wide: 34.9 per game.

It’s a good thing the Lightning have the best netminder in the league in Andrei Vasilevskiy. Florida’s situation in the crease is infinitely more interesting, considering it’s pretty crowded. While veteran starter Sergei Bobrovsky struggled to find consistency, backup Chris Driedger stepped up and stole games. Late in the season, the club signed and called up rookie Spencer Knight, who won all four starts. Bobrovsky’s the logical starter, but how short is his leash?

That the Lightning have managed to finish in the top third of most offensive categories and sit in the playoffs with a chance to run it back after winning the toughest trophy in sports is an achievement. That they did so without their leading scorer of the past five seasons is… well, pretty impressive. With all signs pointing to Nikita Kucherov making his 2021 debut in Game 1 of the playoffs after being sidelined all season, the Lightning are about to receive a massive offensive jolt. Kucherov led Tampa in playoff points (34) en route to claiming the Cup last year. Bring back Steven Stamkos, too, who’s missed about a month with an injury of his own, and you’ve got the champs at close to full strength. Scary.

PANTHERS X-FACTOR: Sam Bennett
In 38 games with the Calgary Flames this season, Bennett tallied four goals and 12 points and a minus-14 rating. Ten games into his Florida Panthers tenure after being dealt at the deadline, he’s got six goals and 15 points, a plus-12 rating and a six-game point streak heading into the post-season, having been held off the score sheet just once since arriving in The Sunshine State.

“Playoff Sam Bennett” has arrived early. The centreman was the Flames’ best forward in last summer’s bubble, and has built up a reputation for his ability to step up his game several notches in the post-season and get under opponents’ skin while doing so.

Currently listed as day-to-day, the latest word from head coach Joel Quenneville is that they “expect him to be fine.”

LIGHTNING X-FACTOR: Victor Hedman
Tampa Bay’s biggest question is health. We know Kucherov and Stamkos are slated to suit up at long last, but Victor Hedman’s condition feels a little more up in the air. Last summer’s Conn Smythe winner sat out the final two games of the season, dealing with a lower-body injury that has been affecting him since he went awkwardly into the boards during a game against Columbus on March 30. While he’s been able to play through the injury, Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston pointed out that he believes it has limited his mobility. Per Johnston, Hedman plans on playing in the playoffs, but that the injury is “serious enough that I’m told he’s going to require surgery after the season.”

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