You can make a pretty strong and convincing argument that the 2020-21 Florida Panthers were the best team in the history of the franchise. They have a Hall of Fame coach, surrounded their two stars (Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau) with a strong complementary cast, had a great regular season, exceeded all expectations, and gave the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning everything they could handle for six games in their First Round matchup.
But it still was not enough.
Thanks to their 4-0 win on Wednesday night the Lightning are moving on to the Second Round where they will await the winner of the Carolina Hurricanes-Nashville Predators series.
It is the fifth time in the past seven years that the Lightning have won at least one series in the playoffs, and with one more series win this year they would reach the Semifinals for the fifth time in seven years. It has been an incredible run for this core, and given how rested Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos are, as well as the overall depth of the roster, it is going to take an incredible effort for somebody to knock them off.
The Panthers made a valiant effort in a chaotic, physical series that was the highlight of the First Round, but Tampa Bay’s goaltending, star power, and all around depth proved to be just too much.
Let’s focus on the goaltending for a second, because that was a big factor in this result.
While the Lightning have the league’s best goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy (29 save shutout in the series clinching Game 6), the Panthers were forced to use a revolving door of goalies that included Sergei Bobrovsky, Chris Driedger, and rookie Spencer Knight over the six games. Anytime you have to start three different goalies in one series (over only six games) that is probably not a good sign for your chances. And for the Panthers, it was not.
After Driedger and Bobrovsky took turns getting beat in Games 1-4, the Panthers had to turn to the unproven Knight with their season on the line. He played great in Game 5 and was solid in Game 6, but they were going to need perfection to overcome that series deficit.
Beyond the goalies, the Lightning still have the fiercest lineup in the league in terms of talent. There is no weak spot anywhere on this roster, and with Kucherov and Stamkos back in the lineup healthy and refreshed, they have nearly unmatched star power.
It was all on display throughout this series.
After missing the entire regular season Kucherov made an immediate impact with 11 points in the six games, including two assists on Wednesday.
Stamkos, whose power play goal late in the second period helped give the Lightning all the cushion it needed in Game 6, had eight points in the six games.
Winning the Stanley Cup two years in a row requires a lot of luck and good fortune, but given the talent on the roster and how fresh Kucherov and Stamkos should be you have to like Tampa Bay’s chances.
As for the Panthers, there is a lot to like about this season and the immediate future of the franchise, especially as Knight seems to be ready to take over the starting goalie job and hopefully be the player to solidify that position. They had a higher points percentage than any team in Panthers history and played great all season. They just had the misfortune of drawing one of the worst possible First Round matchups.
PANTHERS VS. LIGHTNING (TB wins series 4-2)
Game 1: Lightning 5, Panthers 4
Game 2: Lightning 3, Panthers 1
Game 3: Panthers 6, Lightning 5 (OT)
Game 4: Lightning 6, Panthers 2
Game 5: Panthers 4, Lightning 1
Game 6: Lightning 4, Panthers 0