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 or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Tortorella earns 700th career win, Flyers top Wild 5-4

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    PHILADELPHIA — John Tortorella needed one word to sum up if 700 career wins meant anything to the Flyers coach.


    OK, then. Good thing the brusque Stanley Cup winner isn’t paid by the word.

    James van Riemsdyk scored the only goal in a shootout, and Philadelphia beat the Minnesota Wild 5-4 on Thursday night for Tortorella’s 700th victory.

    Tortorella is 700-573-181 in 1,454 games as an NHL head coach. His 700 wins rank 12th in NHL history and his career games rank ninth in NHL history. He led Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup in 2004. In his first season coaching the Flyers, Tortorella joined Peter Laviolette as the second American-born coach to win 700 games.

    “I think the culture’s kind of changed around here,” Flyers forward Joel Farabee said. “I think he’s done a really good job of keeping the group together.”

    Farabee, Scott Laughton, Rasmus Ristolainen and Tyson Foerster scored for Philadelphia. The Flyers have two straight games for the first time since Jan. 9-14 when they won three straight. Yeah, it’s been that kind of season.

    “Farabee’s starting to pop, he’s looking real good. Tyson is looking real good,” Flyers defenseman Tony DeAngelo said. “This is all about laying the foundation for next year but we get a lot of money to do this job. It’s something we love, so we’re gonna go out and give it our best every night.”

    Matt Boldy had two goals for the Wild, and Oskar Sundqvist and Marcus Foligno also scored.

    “We weren’t very good. They were good,” Wild coach Dean Evason said. “We knew they were playing well, they played well tonight. We were loose. We were not firm, turnovers, it didn’t look like our hockey club.”

    The Flyers and Wild were tied 1-all at the end of the first period, 3-3 at the end of the second and 4-4 headed into OT.

    The rebuilding Flyers have been plucky of late. They had won two of three coming into the game, with the lone loss in overtime. They showed some of that grit in the final two periods, scoring late tying goals.

    “It’s a credit to their group, to their coaching staff, that they’ve got them playing the right way,” Evason said.

    Boldy poked a backhander past Carter Hart with 6:28 left for a 4-3 lead. The Flyers, playing more for the No. 1 pick and for pride, tied the game on Foerster’s second goal of the season.

    Farabee tipped in Cam York’s shot early in the second for a 2-1 lead.

    The Wild got going when Boldy ripped one top shelf past Hart for his 24th goal of the season that tied the game 2-all. Foligno scored his seventh goal for the 3-2 lead.

    Ristolainen buried a hard slapper from the blue line on the power play for the tying goal with 23 seconds left in the second.

    “I think it’s good to try to lay this foundation, kind of get ready for next year. You see guys getting confidence,” DeAngelo said.

    The Flyers only played ahead in the first period.

    Laughton scored off the rush for his 17th goal of the season and a 1-0 lead. Sundqvist celebrated his birthday with a deflection for the tying goal with 3:24 left in the period.

    The Flyers had been one of the lowest-scoring teams in the NHL until the start of this seven-game homestand (3-2 so far). They have scored at least three goals in every game and at least four in the last four.

    “We have definitely gotten to the net better,” Tortorella said. “We have spent a lot of time on the ice and with tape as far as getting to that area.”


    Wild: Host Chicago on Saturday.

    Flyers: Host Detroit on Saturday.

    Crosby reaches 30-goal mark, Penguins knock off Avalanche 5-2

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    DENVER – Sidney Crosby wasn’t even aware of reaching yet another milestone. He’s simply locked in on helping the Pittsburgh Penguins make a 17th straight postseason appearance.

    Jeff Carter had a pair of goals, Crosby scored on a nifty backhand shot in the second period to reach the 30-goal mark for an 11th season and the Penguins beat the Colorado Avalanche 5-2.

    Crosby moved into a tie with Hall-of-Fame center Mario Lemieux for the most 30-goal seasons in Penguins history. Another milestone reached – it came as news to him.

    “I think the most important thing for me is just try to be consistent and if that reflects that great,” said Crosby, who turns 36 in August.

    Even more, Crosby’s the first player in league history to post a 30-goal campaign at 18 years old and again when he was 35-plus, according to NHL Stats.

    “It means I’ve been in the league for a while,” Crosby cracked. “That’s been the thing that’s driven me since since I got into the league – in your first year, you want to prove that you belong. Even at 35, I still think you want to prove you belong, because it is a younger league.”

    Jake Guentzel also scored and Bryan Rust added an empty-net goal for the Penguins, who snapped a four-game slide and moved back into a wild-card spot in the East.

    “It’s definitely a big one for us, for sure,” Guentzel said. “Defending champs, coming to their building, you know how good they are. Top to bottom, we defended hard and that’s what we have to do at this time of the year.”

    Pittsburgh goaltender Tristan Jarry stopped 28 shots in improving to 11-4 this season against teams from the Western Conference.

    J.T. Compher and Devon Toews had goals for the Avalanche, whose six-game winning streak was halted. Nathan MacKinnon had an assist to extend his home points streak to 18 games.

    It was a missed opportunity for Colorado, which could’ve pulled into a three-way tie with Dallas and Minnesota in the Central Division with a victory.

    “We knew they were going to play with urgency,” Colorado coach Jared Bednar said. “But I didn’t feel like there was any reason why we couldn’t, either. … We didn’t get it done. Hopefully we get another one.”

    Alexandar Georgiev made 40 saves, including several critical ones in a second period controlled by the Penguins, who outshot the Avalanche by a 21-9 margin. It could’ve been more than a 3-1 deficit heading into the third period.

    Toews’ power-play goal made it 3-2 with 9:32 remaining. But Carter wrapped up the win with his first multigoal game in the regular season since Jan. 11, 2022.

    “I’m thrilled for him. We’re all thrilled,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said of Carter. “He cares about the Penguins. He wants to win, and he wants to contribute in helping us win so we couldn’t be happier for him.”


    Bednar was appreciative of the three-year extension he signed Tuesday that goes through the 2026-27 season. In his seventh season, he’s the third-longest tenured coach in the NHL behind Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper (March 2013) and Sullivan (December 2015).

    “It’s not a forgiving league or sport, for the most part, but obviously that’s part of the reason why I’m so grateful and thankful,” Bednar said. “Because there were times over my tenure that got a little hairy and management could have made another decision. But obviously they didn’t.”


    Avalanche D Cale Makar missed a second straight game with a lower body injury. “I still have him as day-to-day,” Bednar said. … F Darren Helm returned after missing 64 of 69 games this season with a lower-body injury. … Penguins D Jeff Petry (upper body) skated in the morning but sat out his third straight game. … The Penguins are 11-1 against the Central Division this season. … Penguins standout Evgeni Malkin assisted on Guentzel’s goal to reach the 50-assist mark for a seventh time in his career.


    Penguins: At Dallas on Thursday night.

    Avalanche: Host Arizona on Friday night.

    Report: Blackhawks will not wear Pride-themed jerseys

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    CHICAGO – The Chicago Blackhawks will not wear Pride-themed warmup jerseys before Sunday’s Pride Night game against Vancouver because of security concerns involving a Russian law that expands restrictions on activities seen as promoting LGBTQ rights in the country.

    The decision was made by the NHL organization following discussions with security officials within and outside the franchise, according to a person familiar with the situation who spoke to the AP on Wednesday on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the move.

    The Blackhawks have worn Pride warmup jerseys previously and donned special warmup jerseys on some other themed nights this season. There had been ongoing conversations about a Pride jersey with the players, according to the person who talked to the AP, but the organization made the decision to hold Pride Night without the jerseys this year.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law in December that significantly expands restrictions on activities seen as promoting LGBTQ rights in the country. Chicago defenseman Nikita Zaitsev is a Moscow native, and there are other players with family in Russia or other connections to the country.

    The decision by the Blackhawks comes after San Jose Sharks goalie James Reimer and Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov refused to take part in warmups with Pride-themed jerseys. The New York Rangers opted not to wear Pride jerseys or use Pride stick tape as part of their night in January despite previously advertising that plan.

    Russians Nikolai Knyzhov and Alexander Barabanov wore the Pride-themed jerseys for the Sharks on Saturday.

    While Chicago will go without Pride warmup jerseys this year, the team has planned a variety of activities in conjunction with Sunday’s game. DJs from the LGBTQ community will play before the game and during an intermission, and the Chicago Gay Men’s Chorus also is slated to perform. There also are plans to highlight a couple of area businesses with ties to the LGBTQ community.

    Teravainen scores late, Hurricanes rally to beat Rangers 3-2

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    NEW YORK – Teuvo Teravainen scored the tiebreaking goal late in the third period, Frederik Andersen stopped 29 shots and the Carolina Hurricanes rallied to beat the New York Rangers 3-2.

    Jalen Chatfield and Stefan Noesen also scored for the Metropolitan Division-leading Hurricanes, who won for the third time in four games.

    With the comeback win, the Hurricanes became the second team – following Boston – to reach the 100-point mark this season as Carolina increased its Metropolitan Division-lead over second-place New Jersey to two points and the third-place Rangers to eight.

    “That was a great effort. All 20 guys contributed and we got what we deserved,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “If we play like that, we’ll be in good shape. This time of year it gets tougher and tougher.”

    Tyler Motte and Kaapo Kakko scored for the Rangers, who had won four straight were 6-0-1 in their last seven. Igor Shesterkin finished with 36 saves as the Rangers played their third game in four nights – the previous two shutout wins at home.

    “Igor kept us in there as long as he could and we just didn’t have enough in the tank,” Rangers captain Jacob Trouba said. ”They won more battles and played a hard game.”

    Teravainen scored his 11th goal with 2:33 left on a pass from defenseman Brent Burns, redirecting the puck past Shesterkin. The Hurricanes, who trailed 1-0 and 2-1.

    “Somehow they left me open in the back side, great pass by him,” Teravainen said of the winning-goal pass to him in the slot. “We knew this would be a tough night. They have a good team. We knew we had to battle to win this game.”

    The Rangers led 1-0 entering the third and were vying for their third-straight shutout before Chatfield tied the score at 9:49 – the first goal the Rangers allowed in more than eight periods. New York was coming off a 6-0 win over Pittsburgh on Saturday night with Shesterkin in goal and a 7-0 triumph over Nashville behind Jaroslav Halak on Sunday.

    Kakko then put New York back ahead 31 seconds later with his 13th goal, only to have Noesen answer right back 18 seconds later to tie it 2-2.

    Motte opened the scoring at the 17-minute mark of the first, knocking the puck past Andersen for his third goal in four games and sixth of the season overall.

    The Rangers hadn’t lost in regulation since a 4-2 defeat on March 4 at Boston.

    “Tonight we didn’t play near well enough to beat that team,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said. ”Honestly, the whole game they outplayed us. They were a lot quicker. They managed the puck real well … We didn’t play our game.”


    Hurricanes captain Jordan Staal played his 729th game with Carolina on Tuesday, tying defenseman Glen Wesley for the second-most games played in franchise history since relocation from Hartford in 1997. Staal, 34, trails only his brother Eric, who played 909 games for the Hurricanes from 2003-16.


    Hurricanes: Host the Rangers on Thursday night to finish the home-and-home set in the opener of a four-game homestand.

    Rangers: At Carolina on Thursday night to open a two-game trip.