Lightning vs. Panthers preview: 5 questions for ‘Battle of Florida’

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PHT previews each Second Round playoff series with five questions. In this post, we explore “The Battle of Florida” between the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning.


Game 1 – May 17: Lightning at Panthers, 7 p.m. ET (TNT, Sportsnet, CBC, TVA Sports)
Game 2 – May 19: Lightning at Panthers, 7 p.m. ET (TNT, Sportsnet, CBC, TVA Sports)
Game 3 – May 22: Panthers at Lightning, 1:30 p.m. ET (ESPN, Sportsnet, TVA Sports)
Game 4 – May 23: Panthers at Lightning, 7 p.m. ET (TNT, Sportsnet, CBC, TVA Sports)
*Game 5 – May 25: Lightning at Panthers, TBD
*Game 6 – May 27: Panthers at Lightning, TBD
*Game 7 – May 29: Lightning at Panthers, TBD

* if necessary
TBD – To Be Determined

1. How healthy are Point, Kucherov, Verhaeghe?

We’re only through one race in the marathon that is the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Even so, there are already injuries that could swing a series between two dominant teams in the Panthers and Lightning.

Most pressingly, Brayden Point left the Lightning’s Game 7 win over the Maple Leafs, and failed in his attempt to return.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper deemed Brayden Point “highly doubtful” for Game 1 against the Panthers. Beyond that, there’s the nebulous day-to-day label. Considering how Point reacted to tweaking whatever it is that he injured, his larger availability is an open question.

Speaking of open questions, there are injuries teams can’t hide. Then there are ones we mainly speculate about.

For example: Darren Dreger speculated that Nikita Kucherov‘s been “dealing with something.”

Considering his series-clinching overtime goal and an assist, you could be forgiven for assuming that Carter Verhaeghe is totally healthy. That said, it’s worth noting that Verhaeghe was a game-time decision for Game 6.

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There’s an old sports adage to play hurt, but not injured. During the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, players often do both.

While that’s some mix of admirable and reckless, it creates an invisible guessing game. As much as hot-takers want to question the toughness of a player, you’re only so sure who’s even playing at full-strength.

So, we may see all of Kucherov, Point, and Verhaeghe during this Lightning – Panthers series. That doesn’t mean every player will be at 100%.

(Also, can we get Aaron Ekblad some health luck? Sheesh.)

2. What’s a better advantage: fresher legs or experienced hands?

Broadly speaking, Panthers – Lightning is a series about a fresher, generally younger team vs. a battle-tested-but-also-battered repeat defending champion.

Since their championship run began in 2019-20, the Lightning have played 55 playoff games. The next two teams (Islanders, 41 playoff games played; Golden Knights, 39) didn’t even make the playoffs this year. Meanwhile, the Panthers have played 16 playoff games, and just won their first playoff series in 26 years.

(It’s amusing, really, that the Lightning added Corey Perry to their roster, as he’s topped all skaters with 56 playoff games played since 2019-20.)

One might be tempted to only look at the Lightning since they were shockingly swept by Columbus, but much of this core accrued grueling playoff minutes even before this run. Consider the career playoff games played (and ages) for key Lightning players:

  • Victor Hedman, 31 years old: 139 playoff games played.
  • Nikita Kucherov, 28: 120.
  • Steven Stamkos, 32: 101.
  • Brayden Point’s relatively young at 26, yet he’s already played 74. Of course, there’s the injury factor.

Then you look at the Panthers, and you’ll notice a younger core. Between ages 25 and 26, you have Aleksander Barkov, Carter Verhaeghe, Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart, and on. Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar are both 28.  None of those players absorbed the battle scars of lengthy playoff skirmishes.

[2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs schedule, TV information]

Even Florida’s veterans haven’t been through playoff rigors as much lately. On one hand, Claude Giroux, 34, has played 91 playoff games. On the other, his Flyers generally rotated seasons where they made the playoffs one season, then missed it the other since 2012-13. He’s only endured one semi-lengthy playoff run recently (16 playoff GP in 2019-20).

Ultimately, it remains to be seen if a Lightning enjoy that advantage in experience, or if all of those experiences slow them down against the speedy, relentless Panthers. For what it’s worth, a cagey, experienced, less-imposing Capitals team managed to slow the Panthers far more than expected in the First Round:

3. How much of an edge will Vasilevskiy have over Bobrovsky?

That fatigue discussion hovers at least a bit, in my mind, over a battle that many (understandably) believe the Lightning will win handily.

How much better should we expect Andrei Vasilevskiy to be compared to Sergei Bobrovsky (or, if things get ugly again, Bob and Spencer Knight)?

For some time, I’ve wondered if the Lightning would eventually lean too much on Andrei Vasilevskiy. Frankly, it’s impressive that the answer is “not yet.”

Going back to playoff games played during the Lightning three-peat push, Andrei Vasilevskiy’s 55 games played easily leads all goalies, with Semyon Varlamov (34) and Carey Price (32) the only other netminders above 30.

It’s not as though the Bolts rested up their No. 1 goalie with the playoffs in mind, either. In that same frame (since 2019-20), Vasilevskiy played 157 regular-season games, second-only to overworked Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck (169).

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Of course, it helps that Vasilevskiy is somehow just 27. It’s also noteworthy that, amid ups and downs, 33-year-old Bobrovsky played 135 regular-season games during that span.

Still, Vasilevskiy’s played more playoff games (55) during these past three runs than Bob’s played in his career (47).

On paper, Vasilevskiy carries a steep advantage over Bobrovsky, even noting that Bob’s been good enough for Florida through much of 2021-22. That’s a lot of playoff hockey, even for a 27-year-old, and the Lightning increasingly lean on low margins of victory.

The Lightning may not want to rely on their goaltending advantage over the Panthers too much.

4. Can the Panthers afford to play nasty against the Lightning?

Tampa Bay Lightning v Florida Panthers
(Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

Yes, there’s an undercurrent of comedy to the title “Battle of Florida.” Some of it comes down to imagery about Cats.

A lot of it comes down to Florida leaping from mediocre to very good faster than a panther can pounce.

But these teams really have been nasty with each other at times. Memorably, last year’s series began with a number of dirty/borderline hits, including one that netted a Sam Bennett suspension.

In the latest Lightning – Panthers series, Florida head coach Andrew Brunette may need to thread a delicate needle.

On one hand, you want this team to be relentless. Constantly putting pressure on opponents can lead to the sort of mistakes that can give you rush opportunities, and then things can snowball from there.

On the other hand, go overboard, and you risk suspensions and penalties.

[More: What’s next for the Maple Leafs?]

Really, the Panthers must be relieved that they beat the Capitals despite going 0-for-18 on the power play. They were the only team without a PPG in the First Round. Meanwhile, the Lightning went 7-for-33(!) in their series.

Of course, small sample sizes can lead you to get carried away. During the regular season, the Panthers and Lightning both boasted brilliant power-play units.

Still, it would probably be wise for the Panthers to find a happy medium between functional aggression and last postseason, when they lost their minds at times against the Lightning.

5. Who will win this Lightning – Panthers Series?

Lightning in six games

While each team is versatile, I see the styles push this way. The Panthers want to create such a quantity of chances, preferably off the rush, that they overwhelm the Lightning. Florida does, at times, give up high-danger chances if they can’t limit an opponent’s time in the attacking zone.

The Lightning likely aim to pull off a super-charged version of what Washington sometimes achieved. Pressure Florida’s defense to create sloppier exits, and clog up the neutral zone to limit transition opportunities when the forecheck can’t do the trick. On offense, the Lightning will hope to create enough high-danger chances (ideally gaining some cycle-heavy shifts) to make the difference.

That’s where the fatigue question gives me pause. Tampa Bay will want to slow things down, and they might get their way. Yet, if Florida can make this a sprint, the Bolts could be in real trouble.

My guess is that the Lightning are crafty and versatile enough to squeeze out a series win against the Panthers. Greedily, I wouldn’t hate to see the Panthers open things up, though. When they’re going, they’re a lot of fun to watch.

Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.


Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

He found a little of both.

The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

“I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

“It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

“That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

“We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

“It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”


Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.

Avalanche spoil Kuemper’s return, top Capitals 3-2 as Bednar sets mark

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
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DENVER – Artturi Lehkonen, Andrew Cogliano and Alex Newhook scored against former teammate Darcy Kuemper and the surging Colorado Avalanche held off the Washington Capitals 3-2 to give coach Jared Bednar his franchise-record 266th victory.

Logan O'Connor added two assists, Nathan MacKinnon had an assist for his 700th point and Alexandar Georgiev made 37 saves in the Avs’ season-best sixth straight victory. They moved into third place in the Central Division, one point ahead of Minnesota.

Bednar, coaching his 500th game for Colorado, improved to 266-185-49 and passed former Quebec Nordiques boss Michel Bergeron for the most coaching victories in franchise history.

Alex Ovechkin returned from an injury to score his 31st goal for Washington. Conor Sheary also scored and Kuemper stopped 23 shots in his first game in Denver since helping the Avalanche win the Stanley Cup in June.

The crowd stood and applauded after a first-period video tribute for Kuemper, who won 37 games in the regular season and 10 more in the playoffs.

The Avs chose not to re-sign Kuemper, who then inked a five-year deal with the Capitals in July.

He had his moments against his former team, including nifty glove saves against Jacob MacDonald and Lehkonen in the second period to keep it a one-goal game. But Newhook’s goal with 4:21 left in the second made it 3-1.

The depleted Capitals dominated the third period but still lost for the fifth time in seven games.

Ovechkin’s one-timer at 9:44 of the third was his 811th goal after he missed his first game of the season Saturday with a lower-body injury. But Washington was without T.J. Oshie, who left to be with his wife for the birth of their fourth child. And Nicklas Backstrom was a late scratch with a non-COVID illness.

Then Tom Wilson exited in the second period after blocking a shot and underwent an X-ray between periods.

The Avalanche, who haven’t trailed during their win streak, solved Kuemper at 8:57 of the first when MacKinnon absorbed a big hit from Dmitry Orlov and fed Lehkonen for his 15th goal and sixth in six games.

Cogliano redirected Kurtis MacDermid‘s shot 2:04 into the second to make it 2-0. Sheary cut the. lead in half when he tipped in Martin Fehervary‘s shot for his 12th goal just over two minutes later.


It also marked the return of Washington’s Nicolas Aube-Kubel, who had 22 points in 67 games for the Avs in 2021-22, He’s remembered for dropping and denting the Cup during the on-ice celebration.

“It’s part of my journey here,” a smiling Aube-Kubel said of his fumble, adding the season was “the best time of my life.”

NOTES: Avs D Cale Makar (upper body) practiced Monday and took part in the morning skate, but missed his fourth straight game. … Avs W Anton Blidh cleared waivers and skated on the fourth line. … Aliaksei Protas centered Washington’s third line in his first NHL action since Jan. 5 and was robbed by Georgiev in the first period. … The Capitals have only four games left outside the Eastern time zone.


Capitals: Host Pittsburgh.

Avalanche: Host Anaheim.