The Lightning opened up a 2-0 series lead with two road wins against the Panthers to begin the First Round. Despite being away from AMALIE Arena, Tampa wasn’t exactly underdogs, especially with Nikita Kucherov making his season debut and Steven Stamkos returning from injury.
The defending Stanley Cup champions are a popular choice to repeat, even in arguably the toughest division in the league. Returning home with a 2-0 lead is the type of spot any team would hope for.
It hasn’t been as cut-and-dry as it seems, though; the Panthers have competed tough, and even though the ice shifts a bit north west, it would be naïve to totally count Florida out.
Sam Bennett, who has played terrific since being dealt from Calgary to Florida, served his suspension in Game 2 and will be back for the third game of the series. Chris Driedger was announced as the Game 3 (6:30 p.m. ET; USA Network) starting goalie after a strong Game 2.
There’s been strong elements to Florida’s games, such as their top two lines matching Tampa’s output. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau have had some tremendous chances 5-on-5 and just stopped by likely Vezina winner Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The depth further down, though, is where the Lightning have had the advantage. They’ve stayed sharper later in games, limited turnovers and staying out of the penalty box.
Kucherov played 22 minutes, the most any Lightning forward had in that contest, in Game 2. After his miraculously-timed injury recovery just in time for the postseason, too.
Clearly, he changes the entire dynamic of the offense, and might be the tipping point for two teams that were evenly matched most of the season. Florida went 5-3-0 against them in the regular season, and with the two playoff games, are now 5-5-0.
The bad news for Florida is Tampa Bay is 6-0 all-time in series where it won the first two games. In the history of the league, just 13.4% of clubs have come back from trailing 2-0 in a series.
So it doesn’t really matter if the Panthers match up well this season or didn’t look that bad in the first two losses; they’re up against the wall and can’t afford to go back home trailing in Game 5, if they even get there at all.
Perhaps it was shortsighted for anyone to look at what the Lightning had coming back in Stamkos and Kucherov and the season Vasilevskiy and Norris-hopeful defenseman Victor Hedman and not consider them the favorite. It’s playing out like a series where, even with Florida playing really good hockey, the Lightning might be too much to overcome anyways.
It would be shortsighted to totally count out Florida though, too.
“The series is definitely not over,” Stamkos said after Game 2. “We’ve been in these positions before, in both ends of these positions before. We certainly know that team over there is not quitting, not giving up. They are a really good team and it took a huge effort for us to be up 2-0. There’s definitely no taking the foot off the gas for us. We know how hard it is to win at this time of the year, so we’re expecting their best for Game 3.”
PANTHERS VS. LIGHTNING (TB leads 2-0) – series livestream link
Game 1: Lightning 5, Panthers 4
Game 2: Lightning 3, Panthers 1
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