NHL Central Division First Round Playoff Preview: Florida Panthers versus Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Florida Panthers will have home-ice advantage against the reigning Stanley Cup champions after a surprising regular season that earned them second place in the makeshift Central Division in this season played amidst the COVID outbreak. Florida’s 37-14-5 record put them one point behind Carolina in first place in the division with 79 points.
The Panthers reached the traditional sixteen-team playoff postseason for just the third time in the last 20 seasons. They did qualify for the play-in best of five series last year before getting eliminated by the New York Islanders in four games. The organization replaced general manager Dale Tallon in the offseason with Bill Zito, who had previously served as Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Zito parted ways with goal scorers Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov and replaced them with some under-the-radar values in forwards like Patric Hornqvist, Anthony Duclair, and Carter Verhaeghe. Zito then made a splash at the trade deadline by acquiring forward Sam Bennett from Calgary and defenseman Brandon Montour from Buffalo.
Bennett has scored nine goals and added nine assists in his ten games in a Panthers’ uniform while stabilizing the second line playing center with talented wingers Jonathan Huberdeau and Owen Tippett. Huberdeau leads the team with 61 points coming from 20 goals and 41 assists in his 55 games. The 21-year-old Tippett is the former tenth pick in the 2017 draft. Bennett’s strong play has allowed head coach Joel Quenneville to drop center Alex Wennberg to play on the third line alongside a two-time Stanley Cup winner in Hornqvist.
Montour has found new life getting away from the Sabres skating with Markus Nutivaara on the second blue line pairing. Florida had a big hole to fill on their blue line after the season-ending leg injury to star young defenseman, Aaron Ekblad. Mackenzie Weegar has emerged as a legitimate number one defenseman playing the top blue-line pairing with Gustav Forsling. The Panthers have surprisingly improved in their possession numbers after the loss of Eklbad.
The Florida talisman is their top-line center Alexsander Barkov. The second overall pick in the 2013 NHL draft is enjoying the best season in his career with 26 goals and 32 assists while being one of the best two-way players in the game. Zito’s success in adding midtier depth afforded the veteran Quenneville the luxury to split up Barkov and Huberdeau to form two high-quality scoring lines. After playing together at five-on-five 69% of the time in the previous two seasons, Quenneville has had the two stars on the ice together at even strength just 14% of the time this year. Duclair and Verghaeghe join Barkov on the top line.
While Zito has quickly addressed many of the problems in depth he inherited from Tallon, the question marks with goaltending continue. Tallon thought he addressed this issue two years ago by signing Sergei Bobrovsky to a seven-year, $70 million contract. The 32-year-old former Vezina Trophy winner was a disappointment with a 3.23 goals-against-average and a .900 save percentage (the second-lowest mark in his career) last year. Bobrovsky has not been much better this season, with a 2.91 goals-against-average and a .906 save percentage. Quenneville might turn to Chris Driedger after the 26-year-old posted a 2.07 goals-against-average and .927 save percentage in 23 regular season starts.
Tampa Bay finally got the monkey off their back in the Jon Cooper-coaching era by winning the Stanley Cup last fall in the NHL playoff bubble. That triumph culminated a six-year run under Cooper, where they lead the league in the most regular-season wins, the most playoff wins, and the most goals scored during that tenure.
After their dominant postseason run, the Lightning’s campaign to repeat as champions suffered an early blow when Nikita Kucherov suffered a hip injury that kept him out of the entire regular season. Cooper’s team was on cruise control playing without Kucherov, finishing with a 36-17-3 record for 75 points and third place in the Central Division. The good news for Tampa Bay is that Kucherov will be back for the postseason. However, star defensemen Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh, and forward Steven Stamkos are dealing with injuries that threaten their ability to take the ice in the opening game of this series.
General manager Julien BriseBois was able to keep the core of his team intact in the offseason. He did lose Verhaege to the Panthers, who were struggling to find ice time given the forward depth of the Lightning. Tampa Bay lost some blue line depth entering the year, most notably in the departure of Kevin Shattenkirk. Brisebois acquired defenseman David Savard in a trade with Columbus at the deadline, but the veteran has yet to gel with his new team.
Brayden Point led the team with 23 goals and 48 points anchoring the top line without Kucherov at right wing. The Lightning’s regular-season Most Valuable Player may have been goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who posted a 2.21 goals-against-average and a .925 save percentage.
Florida won the regular-season series between these two teams with five victories in eight games. They outscored Stanley Cup champions by a 31-24 goal margin, albeit without Kucherov.
The Panthers host the opening two games of this best-of-seven series beginning on Sunday on the NBC Sports Network at 7:30 PM ET. The winner of this series plays the winner of the Carolina Hurricanes-Nashville Predators first-round series. BetOnline lists Tampa Bay as a -108 money line road favorite with the total set at 5.5.