It’s the Battle for Florida in the first round of the NHL Playoffs as the Florida Panthers (37-14-5) take on the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning (36-17-3). On paper, this series is arguably the most entertaining matchup of the first round. The powerhouse Lightning are playing at less than full strength and the Panthers are ready to pounce, all-in on a Cup run.

In this Lightning vs Panthers series preview, I’ll break down all you need to know before Florida and Tampa Bay take the ice, along with a winning pick for who will advance in the 2021 NHL Playoffs.

Lightning vs Panthers Series Schedule

GAME ONE: Sunday, May 16, 7:30 P.M.
GAME TWO: Tuesday, May 18, 8:00 P.M.
GAME THREE: Thursday, May 20, 6:30 P.M.
GAME FOUR: Saturday, May 22, 12:30 P.M.
GAME FIVE*: Monday, May 24, TBD
GAME SIX*: Wednesday, May 26, TBD
GAME SEVEN*: Friday, May 28, TBD

* = if needed, all times Eastern

Lightning vs Panthers Regular Season Results

February 11: Panthers 5, Lightning 2
February 13: Lightning 6, Panthers 1
February 15: Panthers 6, Lightning 4
March 26: Lightning 5, Panthers 3
April 15: Lightning 3, Panthers 2 (OT)
April 17: Panthers 5, Lightning 3
May 8: Panthers 5, Lightning 1
May 10: Panthers 4, Lightning 0

Goaltenders

 

Lightning vs Panthers

 

LIGHTNING:

Andrei Vasilevskiy: 31-10-1, 2.21 GAA, .925 save percentage, five shutouts
Curtis McElhinney: 4-6-2, 3.09 GAA, .875 save percentage

PANTHERS:

Sergei Bobrovsky: 19-8-2, 2.91 GAA, .906 save percentage
Chris Driedger 14-6-3, 2.07 GAA, .927 save percentage, three shutouts
Spencer Knight: 4-0-0, 2.32 GAA, .919 save percentage

Injury Report

LIGHTNING:

Barclay Goodrow – upper body, expected return: May 22
Victor Hedman – lower body, expected return: May 16
Nikita Kucherov – hip surgery, expected return: May 16
Ondrej Palat – lower body, expected return: May 16
Steven Stamkos – lower body, expected return: May 16

PANTHERS:

Aaron Ekblad – leg surgery, expected return: September 2021
Jonathan Huberdeau – upper body, expected return: May 16
Brandon Montour – undisclosed, expected return: May 16

Special Teams Stats

LIGHTNING:

Power Play: 22.4% (40/179), ninth in NHL, three shorthanded goals against
Penalty Kill: 84.2% (154/189), fourth in NHL, three shorthanded goals

PANTHERS:

Power Play: 20.5% (39/190), 15th in NHL, four shorthanded goals against
Penalty Kill: 79/8% (134/168), 17th in NHL, four shorthanded goals

Lightning vs Panthers Storylines

 

Lightning vs Panthers

 

All indications are that Nikita Kucherov will make his season debut Sunday after missing the entire regular season following hip surgery. Kucherov led the Lightning in scoring in the regular season each of the past five years, and again in last year’s Cup-winning campaign (seven goals, 27 assists in 25 games). If he’s healthy, an already potent Lightning offense gets even more deadly.

The Panthers excelled at drawing penalties this season, earning the second-most power play opportunities. Tampa Bay took the second most penalties (183), finishing one behind the San Jose Sharks for the worst. Discipline will be a key factor for both clubs.

Since arriving in Florida, Sam Bennett has six goals and nine assists in 10 games. He set a franchise record for most points through his first 10 games with the organization, breaking Pavel Bure’s previous record of 13.

Florida’s goaltenders provide an interesting dilemma. Sergei Bobrovsky has been named the Game 1 starter, but Chris Driedger has put up better numbers for most of the season. Young goaltending prospect Spencer Knight is the first goaltender born in the 2000’s to win an NHL game, and he’s the youngest ever to win the first four games of his career. If Bobrovsky struggles early, he may have a short leash with that much talent behind him.

Andrei Vasileskiy has played more games than any other goaltender over the past five years between regular season and postseason play. He’s been a workhorse in net and will almost certainly be a Vezina finalist again this season (he won in 2019). However, in his past 74 starts, he’s allowed four goals through two periods a total of three times (I know that’s a weird stat, but hang with me here). All three of those times were against Florida.

Victor Hedman will reportedly require offseason surgery to help heal a lower body injury, according to a report from Chris Johnston a week ago. The 2020 Conn Smythe winner plays more than 25 minutes per night, more than four minutes more per game than the next closest Lightning player. If he’s slowed up in any way, it could spell trouble for Tampa Bay.

Series Prediction

I sure hope we get seven games in this series. Both teams are playing with a ton of energy right now, with the Lightning as the defending champions and the Panthers as a scrappy, hungry team that looks capable of a solid playoff run.

In anticipation of Game 7, I’m going with the home Panthers, who are the underdog in the series despite having the higher seed. I think health is a big factor, and right now, Florida is the healthier team.

SERIES PREDICTION: Florida Panthers in seven games.

 

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