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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