Lightning vs. Panthers: 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round preview

In 1993-94, the Florida Panthers debuted in the NHL, while the Tampa Bay Lightning were in their second season. Despite existing for that long — usually in the same division — the Lightning and Panthers haven’t ever met in a playoff series.

That changes during the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as the Lightning and Panthers ready for a fascinating First Round series.

PANTHERS VS. LIGHTNING – series livestream link

Sunday, May 16: Lightning at Panthers, 7:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Tuesday, May 18: Lightning at Panthers, 8 p.m. ET (CNBC)
Thursday, May 20: Panthers at Lightning, 6:30 p.m. ET (USA Network)
Saturday, May 22: Panthers at Lightning, 12:30 p.m. ET (CNBC)
*Monday, May 24: Lightning at Panthers TBD
*Wednesday, May 26: Panthers at Lightning TBD
*Friday, May 28: Lightning at Panthers TBD

Lightning – Panthers: Stories to Watch

The return of Kucherov and Stamkos

Here’s an opinion. As great as Victor Hedman was on his way to winning the 2020 Conn Smythe Trophy, the voting should’ve boiled down to either Nikita Kucherov or Brayden Point.

While some scoffed at the salary cap gymnastics twirling around Kucherov being on long-term injured reserve, the Lightning were far less lethal without the elite winger. And, when Steven Stamkos suffered another injury, the strain only intensified.

As of this writing, it sounds like the Lightning will get Kucherov and Stamkos back for their First Round series vs. the Panthers.

Now, it’s fair to wonder if Stamkos will be 100%, and also valid to ask how long it might take Kucherov to shake off all of the rust. But the Lightning would gladly have them in the lineup, rather than out. They merely need to consider the ups and downs of their season if they need a reminder of life without Kucherov, in particular.

Unproven franchise vs. defending champions

By both underlying numbers and simple standings measures, the Panthers very much “belong” with the Lightning. They even grabbed home-ice advantage in this series, and by a reasonably comfortable measure.

But there’s no denying that, when it comes to playoff success, there’s an enormous gulf between the Lightning and the Panthers. In that regard, these two Florida teams seem like they come from different planets.

The Lightning, of course, are the defending champions. They’ve won two Stanley Cups, made another championship round appearance, and appeared in multiple conference final series. Their reputation as one of the gold standard NHL franchises is well-earned.

Meanwhile, the Panthers have mostly teetered between irrelevant and a laughingstock. They’ve rarely made the playoffs, and haven’t won a series since their surprising run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final. Even then, many viewed the Panthers’ sole meaningful playoff run as a fluke.

So, yeah … the Panthers have a lot to prove, while the Lightning are merely trying to prove that they can do this again.

Vasi the workhorse

You’d truly be straining at the upper limits of contrarianism to deny that Andrei Vasilevskiy is one of the best goalies in the world. Maybe you’d lean toward Connor Hellebuyck, but beyond that, Vasilevskiy has few peers.

For a brief spell, certain advanced stats didn’t argue overwhelmingly for Vasilevskiy. Those days are largely over, though, as the Lightning have been leaning on him more and more. If it weren’t for their workhorse goalie, people would probably feel more concern about the 2020-21 Lightning.

You don’t need to dig too deep to argue for Vasi, either. Since 2017-18, Vasilevskiy easily leads all goalies in wins (149, 18 more than second-place Hellebuyck), tied Marc-Andre Fleury for the most shutouts (22), and did all of that with a sparkling .921 save percentage.

Assuming that Vasilevskiy isn’t too fatigued from such a busy workload, he could be the Lightning’s biggest edge in this series (depending upon how much you weigh the subjective impact of the Panthers’ playoff inexperience).

Coach Q proving his worth

Despite backing up a Brinks truck full of money to both Joel Quenneville and Sergei Bobrovsky, the Panthers didn’t look all that different in 2019-20. It’s not fair to lay all of that blame on Coach Q, but with big money and reputations come big expectations.

(Bob? Yeah, you can lay a lot of the blame on him, though.)

No doubt, the Panthers have made some savvy changes under Bill Zito, including finding Carter Verhaeghe, a gem who got lost in the Lightning’s embarrassment of riches.

But credit Quenneville for mixing all of those ingredients together to make a sumptuous hockey stew. The Panthers rank in the top 10 (if not the top five) in most major categories, scoring well at both “quantity” and “quality.”

They’ve shaken off Aaron Ekblad‘s injury, among others, while rarely missing a beat. Quenneville deserves a lot of credit for that — and some serious Jack Adams consideration in the process.

Quenneville vs. Jon Cooper could end up being a fun chess match for hockey nerds.

One big question for Tampa Bay: Will we see the ‘real’ Lightning, or did we already?

Yes, most NHL teams would love to trade their problems with the Lightning’s modest issues.

On the other hand, the Lightning have invested heavily in winning now. That’s totally justified, but by going all-in often as a contender, it also means any setback stings that much more. It also makes a mild doubt feel like a more troubling red flag.

Can we assume that Kucherov and/or Stamkos will heal a lot of wounds? Should worries about Hedman’s under-the-radar struggles be dismissed?

Again, the Lightning haven’t been “bad” in 2020-21, but the Panthers are a formidable opponent. They shouldn’t hesitate to flip the switch.

One big question for Florida: Goaltending

If you go by performance in 2020-21 alone, the Panthers would start Chris Driedger, with Spencer Knight serving as his backup. But neither Driedger nor Knight have ever played in a playoff game.

Also … let’s face it. It’s difficult for any team to leave a $10 million goalie on the bench, or worse, watching in the press box.

If that wasn’t already a cause for indigestion, this could cause more rumbling in the stomach. Even when Sergei Bobrovsky was a Vezina-winning goalie in Columbus, he suffered through some rough playoff runs. His career playoff save percentage is an unsettling .902.

Of course, the Lightning know all too well that Bob can get hot during a postseason. A keyed-in Bobrovsky helped the Blue Jackets pull off a stunning sweep of the Lightning, which likely helped Bob get that ill-advised deal from the Panthers.

All things considered, Florida would likely be elated if goaltending ended up being a “draw.”

Panthers – Lightning series prediction: Tampa Bay in 7

Don’t take this the wrong way: Florida is legitimately good. Anyone picking the Panthers over the Lightning isn’t making a wild prediction.

It’s difficult to overstate how much of a difference a healthy Kucherov can make, and the Lightning’s best look a little better than the Panthers’ best players. It’s easier to picture Vasilevskiy delivering, especially if the Panthers give Bob a start or two, and he continues to look like the Panthers version of Bob.

The safest prediction is that the first Florida playoff series should be a blast, though.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Coaching carousel leaves 10 NHL teams with new face on bench

    Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
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    The coaching carousel spun a little faster than usual across the NHL, meaning nearly a third of the league will have someone new behind the bench this season. And not just bottom-feeders making changes.

    Ten teams go into the season next month with a new coach, from Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida and perennial playoff-contending Boston to rebuilding Chicago and San Jose.

    John Tortorella will try to whip Philadelphia into shape, Bruce Cassidy is tasked with getting Vegas back to the playoffs and Derek Lalonde takes his two Stanley Cup rings as a Tampa Bay assistant to his new challenge with the Detroit Red Wings.

    TORTS REFORM

    Philadelphia players knew they were in for some changes when Tortorella was hired, so they asked Cam Atkinson, who spent six years playing for the no-nonsense coach in Columbus.

    “I keep telling them like he’s a guy that’s going to change the whole dynamic of this organization,” Atkinson said.

    Tortorella has not shied away from saying a culture change is needed after a last-place finish and a decade with one playoff series win. There is likely not much he and players can do this year about a Cup drought that dates to 1975, but they can start with maddeningly inconsistent stretches of games that have plagued the Flyers for years, no matter the roster.

    BIG MO

    The Panthers were the league’s best team in the regular season last year but struggled in the playoffs before losing in the second round to cross-state rival Tampa Bay in five games. That was enough for general manager Bill Zito to decide to move on from interim coach Andrew Brunette and hired seasoned veteran Paul Maurice.

    The expectation is to get back to the playoffs and compete for the Cup, and having Maurice at the helm was one of the factors that made power forward Matthew Tkachuk pick Florida as his trade-and-sign destination.

    “He’s got high hopes for our team,” Tkachuk said. “He sees us playing in a certain way that’s going to make us successful. And he’s done it. He’s been around the NHL a long time, been a very successful head coach and somebody that I’m really looking forward to working with.”

    PLAYOFF ROTATION

    Bruins GM Don Sweeney fired Cassidy after a seven-game loss to Carolina in the first round despite Boston’s sixth consecutive playoff appearance.

    Vegas had already fired Peter DeBoer, making him the scapegoat for an injury-riddled fall from the top of the Western Conference that ended with the team’s first playoff miss in five years of existence. The Golden Knights quickly turned to Cassidy, who like Maurice brings experience and gravitas to a franchise with championship aspirations.

    “I think we’re very fortunate as an organization to have him as our coach,” center Jack Eichel said. “Every single person I’ve spoke to about them, they said the same thing: that he’s got a really, really great knack for the game and to able to make adjustments and he understands things. Very, very competitive — wants to win, has won a lot of hockey games over the last few years.”

    The Bruins replaced Cassidy with Jim Montgomery, a hockey lifer getting a second chance after being fired by Dallas in December 2019 for inappropriate conduct. Montgomery sought and received help at a rehab facility and got a big endorsement from the staff with St. Louis, the team he was working for as an assistant.

    “He’s a winner,” Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman said. “I think guys are going to thrive on that energy.”

    The Stars completed the circle by hiring DeBoer, who has coached two teams (New Jersey in 2012 and San Jose in 2016) to the final and is on his fifth stop around the league.

    “This is a tough league and it’s a tough one to coach in and you have to be able to handle situations,” GM Jim Nill said. “I know Pete can do it.”

    LAMBERT ISLAND

    Lane Lambert served as an assistant under Barry Trotz with Nashville, Washington – where they won the Cup together – and the Islanders. When Trotz was abruptly fired after New York missed the playoffs for the first time in his four seasons on the job, his right-hand man got the gig with his endorsement.

    Longtime executive Lou Lamoriello thought his team needed a new voice. But Lambert isn’t that new, and his familiarity with the Islanders keeps some continuity.

    “Barry was great for our team, and having Lane as an assistant, he had lots of say, as well,” forward Mathew Barzal said. “As a group, we all have a good relationship with him, so I think it’ll be an easy transition for our team.”

    MORE NEW VOICES

    The final coaching change of the offseason came in San Jose, with ownership and interim management firing Bob Boughner and his assistants before Mike Grier took over as GM. Grier hired David Quinn, who most recently coached the U.S. at the Beijing Olympics after spending three years with the Rangers.

    Rick Bowness, the Stars’ interim coach when Montgomery was fired who helped them reach the final in 2020 and was not brought back, joined Winnipeg. He immediately made an impact by stripping Blake Wheeler of the Jets captaincy.

    The other new coaches – Lalonde in Detroit and Luke Richardson in Chicago – are not expected to make such big waves.

    Richardson, who briefly was acting coach for Montreal during the 2021 final when Dominique Ducharme tested positive for the coronavirus, is overseeing the start of a long-term rebuild by the Blackhawks. Lalonde was Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman’s pick to help end the storied franchise’s playoff drought.

    “He believes in what he’s preaching, which I think is great walking into a new locker room,” captain Dylan Larkin said. “He’s made a great impression on the guys.”

    Islanders agree to terms with Mathew Barzal on 8-year extension

    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
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    Mathew Barzal has agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on an eight-year extension, a move that keeps the franchise’s top forward under contract for the balance of his prime.

    The deal is worth $73.2 million with an annual salary cap hit of $9.15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms.

    Barzal has led the team in scoring, or been tied for the lead, every season since he became a full-time NHL player in 2017-18. He has 349 points in 411 regular-season and playoff games for the defensively stingy Islanders, who qualified for the postseason three consecutive times before an injury- and virus-altered last year.

    “We feel recharged,” Barzal said recently. “We feel like everybody had good summers and worked hard, and we got that excitement back.”

    Barzal, now 25, is coming off putting up 59 points in 75 games. The offensive star will now be asked to round out his game.

    “I’m a fan because Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” general manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the team’s practice facility on Long Island. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, (it) puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that. It’s up to him to respond to that.”

    Senators goaltender Cam Talbot out 5-7 weeks with injury

    Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
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    OTTAWA, Ontario — Ottawa Senators goaltender Cam Talbot is expected to be out five to seven weeks with what the team called an upper-body injury.

    The Senators initially called Talbot day to day with what they hoped was a minor injury. Instead he’s now expected to miss at least the first month of the NHL season.

    Ottawa claimed goalie Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken upon announcing Talbot’s expected absence. Hellberg, who played for Sweden at the Beijing Olympics could split time with countryman Anton Forsberg while Talbot is out.

    The Senators acquired Talbot from Minnesota during the offseason to make him their starter after the Wild opted against bringing him back along with Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot, 35, had a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.

    Losing Talbot is a blow to the Senators, who also acquired winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and signed longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as part of a move toward contending and ending their playoff drought.

    Blackhawks’ Boris Katchouk sidelined by ankle sprain

    blackhawks
    Harry How/Getty Images
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    CHICAGO — Blackhawks forward Boris Katchouk will be sidelined for four to six weeks with a left ankle sprain, the team announced.

    The 24-year-old Katchouk played almost 12 minutes during a 3-0 preseason loss to Detroit on Saturday night. He was acquired in a multiplayer trade with Tampa Bay in March.

    The Blackhawks open the season on Oct. 12 at Colorado.

    The team also said forward Jujhar Khaira is day to day with a right ankle injury.