The two-time reigning Stanley Cup champions against the recently crowned Presidents’ Trophy winners — that’s the juicy matchup set for the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers begin their best-of-seven Sunshine State series on Tuesday night at the Panthers’ home in Sunrise, Fla.
By eliminating the Toronto Maple Leafs in Saturday’s Game 7, the Lightning became just the sixth franchise to win nine straight playoff series. The last team to do it was the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2018.
The Panthers set a franchise record this year with 122 points, the most in the league, and led the NHL in goals scored.
Getting past the Lightning, though, may be another matter. The Lightning eliminated the rival Panthers in six games last year in a first-round playoff matchup. Tampa Bay went 2-1 on the road in that series.
The Panthers and Lightning split four regular-season matchups, with each team winning once on the other’s home ice. Florida routed Tampa Bay 4-1 and 9-3 for its two victories. Those nine goals are the most allowed this season by Tampa Bay, and it was also the Lightning’s largest margin of defeat.
For its two wins, Tampa Bay earned a 3-2 result in overtime and also won 8-4 on April 24 in the most recent game between the teams.
The Panthers enter this series with a ton of momentum, having defeated the Washington Capitals in six games. Carter Verhaeghe’s overtime goal on Friday put the Panthers into the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1996.
“A long time coming,” Panthers star winger Jonathan Huberdeau said. “A lot of years and finally rewarded.”
At the heart of the Panthers-Lightning matchup are two goalies from Russia who tied for the league-lead with 39 regular-season wins.
For the Panthers, it’s two-time Vezina Trophy-winner Sergei Bobrovsky, 33.
While with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2019, Bobrovsky beat Tampa Bay in four straight first-round playoff games, allowing a total of just eight goals.
Last year, though, he went 1-2 in the playoffs against Tampa Bay, earning an overtime victory in relief in Game 3 but allowing 10 goals in the other two contests.
The Lightning counter Bobrovsky with Andrei Vasilevskiy, a 27-year-old star with two Stanley Cups and one Vezina Trophy to his name. He has been a top-three Vezina finalist in each of the past four years.
In last year’s first-round matchup, his only playoff series against the Panthers, Vasilevskiy allowed 2.67 goals per game.
Vasilevskiy went 39-18-5 during the regular season, with a .916 save percentage and a 2.49 goals-against average. Bobrovsky went 39-7-3 with a .913 save percentage and a 2.67 GAA.
Tampa Bay’s top skaters are Steven Stamkos, who led the team in goals (42) and points (106); and defenseman Victor Hedman, who topped the team in assists (65). Hedman is a Norris Trophy finalist for the sixth straight year.
However, the Lightning may be without forward Brayden Point (58 points), who suffered a lower-body injury in Saturday’s Game 7 and is doubtful for Tuesday.
The Lightning will have to deal with Huberdeau, who led the league in assists this season with 85. He also had a team-high 115 points.
Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov led the team with 39 goals, and Verhaeghe was an absolute beast against Washington with six goals and six assists over six games.
“Florida is a hell of a team,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “We’ve had some amazing battles against them. I think people, especially in Florida, have been begging for the two teams to be contenders and go at it.”
–Field Level Media