The reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners looking to eliminate the reigning back-to-back defending Stanley Cup champions sets the stage for a compelling second edition of the Sunshine State Showdown.
It didn’t happen at all from 1993 to 2020 yet for a second consecutive season a Florida-based team will be eliminated by the other Florida-based team.
The Panthers' makeup was significantly different one year ago when they were eliminated by the Lightning. Florida was without an injured Aaron Ekblad, Anton Lundell hadn't played an NHL game and management hadn’t yet added the likes of Sam Reinhart, Claude Giroux or Ben Chiarot to the roster.
Tampa, meanwhile, adjusted nicely to a busy off-season and remained contenders. Their top forwards remain their top forwards and they essentially replaced the terrific trio of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow with Nick Paul, Brandon Hagel and Corey Perry, all of whom were productive in the opening round.
Can the defending champs extend their streak to 10 consecutive series wins, or will this best-of-seven matchup signify a passing of the torch in the East?
"It's an exciting challenge for us," Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette told reporters Sunday. "They're what we want to be and we get an opportunity to play them again to get that chance. It's been a fun rivalry the last few years. They've beaten us in the playoffs, so they're up and we have an opportunity to even it."
The teams alternated wins and losses this season and each team picked up one win and one loss both at home and on the road. Florida won 4-1 on Oct. 19 and 9-3 on Dec. 30, while Tampa won 3-2 in OT on Nov. 13 and 8-4 on April 24. The final meeting of the regular season featured plenty of bad blood.
The Story of How Florida Got Here:
The Panthers managed to overcome two separate series deficits (0-1 and 1-2) against the Washington Capitals en route to earning the franchise’s first playoff series win since the 1996 Eastern Conference Final. Did they play like the 2022 Presidents’ Trophy-winning team they are? Not in every game, that’s for sure, but the elite offensive roster began eventually clicking and the goaltending held up in the latter half of the opening round.
Florida relies on balanced scoring and Carter Verhaeghe’s breakout series helped galvanize his team and change the momentum against the Caps. Verhaeghe, who won a Cup with Tampa in 2020, led the Panthers with six goals and six assists in the opening-round, which has him in second place behind only Connor McDavid for the post-season scoring lead.
The team also got Ekblad back after the blueliner missed the final quarter of the regular season with a leg injury. It would’ve been understandable if he looked rusty given his time away, however the defensive stalwart had a solid Washington series and he scored his first career playoff goal. Ekblad was shaken up on a big hit from Alex Ovechkin in Game 6 and didn’t participate in Sunday’s practice but reports indicate the 2014 first-overall pick should be go to go for Game 1 against Tampa.
Ekblad, Verhaeghe, Ben Chiarot and Mason Marchment are among the Panthers operating at less than 100 per cent heading into this series. Marchment is unlikely to play in Game 1 due to the lower-body injury he’s currently dealing with.
The Story of How Tampa Bay Got Here:
Perhaps they’ve simply forgotten how to lose in the post-season? Jon Cooper's team has now won nine consecutive post-season series since being unexpectedly swept as the Presidents’ Trophy winners by Columbus in the opening round in 2019.
Their latest series win was a come-from-behind seven-gamer against the hapless Toronto Maple Leafs. The Lightning were one goal away from elimination yet a Game 6 overtime winner from the ever-clutch Brayden Point saw them live another day. This past Saturday they extended Toronto’s woes while simultaneously moving one step closer to a third consecutive championship. It has been 40 years since a team hoisted a third consecutive Stanley Cup.
Tampa beat Toronto despite being outscored, getting dominated in the faceoff circles and reigning Conn Smythe winner Andrei Vasilevskiy posting a sub-.900 save percentage. The bottom six forwards in particular stepped up against the Maple Leafs with multiple timely goals courtesy of Ross Colton, Corey Perry and Game 7’s two-goal hero Nick Paul.
Regular season 5-on-5 numbers via Natural Stat Trick
REGULAR SEASON TEAM STATS
Florida X-Factor: Sergei Bobrovsky
It’s an obvious one, sure, but if starting goalie Bobrovsky falls back into his old post-season habits it could completely undercut what his teammates are able to do against their state rivals. Bobrovsky’s career regular-season save percentage against Tampa Bay is a paltry .882. In fact, it’s his worst save percentage against any team besides the two latest expansion franchises. His career 3.50 goals-against average versus the Lightning is also rather concerning.
He was pulled in his two starts against Tampa in the playoffs one year ago, allowing 10 goals on 54 shots in those two outings. The two-time Vezina winner has some nice momentum heading into Round 2, though, winning three starts in a row and stopping 30 or more pucks in Game 5 and in Game 6 against Washington.
Tampa Bay X-Factor: Brayden Point
A healthy Brayden Point (or his replacement) will be key. The Lightning displayed their championship mettle by not letting Point’s Game 7 injury deter them against the Maple Leafs. Point sustained a lower-body injury after sliding awkwardly into the boards and was ineffective after that moment outside of providing moral support for his teammates on the bench.
The team didn’t have an update on Point’s status on Sunday but suffice it to say if his movement is significantly compromised, or if the Lightning are without the star forward for any amount of time in this series, it will have a severe impact on their forward depth at both ends of the ice.
Point has more career goals and points against the Panthers than he does against any other franchise (15 goals, 26 points in 25 career regular-season games), not to mention his 38 total post-season goals are the most in the NHL since 2018.
Point scored in all four games against the Panthers this season.
Game 1: Tuesday, May 17, 7 p.m. (Sportsnet and CBC)
Game 2: Thursday, May 19, 7 p.m. (Sportsnet and CBC)
Game 3: Sunday, May 22, 1:30 p.m. (Sportsnet)
Game 4: Monday, May 23, 7 p.m. (Sportsnet and CBC)
*Game 5: Wednesday, May 25, TBD
*Game 6: Friday, May 27, TBD
*Game 7: Sunday, May 29, TBD