The 1996 season marked the last year that the Florida Panthers won an NHL Playoff series. While they came up just short of the ultimate goal of raising a Stanley Cup, the Panthers made a lot of noise around the league in just their third season as a franchise. Since 1996, they’ve lost four first round playoff series and one qualifying series in 2020.
If the Panthers hope to end the nearly 25-year drought, they have to take on the Tampa Bay Lightning. Their in-state rival has asserted their dominance over the Panthers. Since 2003, the Lightning have been postseason contenders in all but six seasons. During that stretch they’ve raised two Stanley Cups, including the one in 2020, making them the defending champs heading into these playoffs.
A Historic Playoff Matchup
The Tampa Bay Lightning’s inaugural season was in 1993 while Florida’s came in 1994. In the 26 NHL seasons they have competed against each other, this will mark the first time that these two in-state rivals will meet in the postseason.
The Lightning and Panthers have been division/conference rivals dating back to their early years in the league. Not even a COVID-19 realignment could separate the two Florida teams this past season. The fact that these two teams have somehow never met in the postseason is pretty incredible. Regardless, this in-state rivalry should get re-energized because of this playoff series which should be fun for the whole state of Florida and the game of hockey.
Defending Champs as the Underdogs?
In this matchup, Florida is the higher seed and will get home-ice advantage. Only four points separated the two teams in the regular season standings. Florida also won five of the eight regular season meetings between Tampa. The Panthers outscored the defending champs 14-4 in the final three games of the regular season series.
The Panthers come into the playoffs as one of the league’s hottest teams. Winners of their last six and ten of their last 12, Florida has been playing some of their best hockey since mid-April. The Lightning, on the other hand, come into the playoffs having only won twice in their last six games.
Kucherov and Stamkos Expected to Return
Fortunately for the Lightning, they should see some guys come off the injury list for this series. Nikita Kucherov, the former league MVP, is expected to make his season debut during this playoff series.
His teammate, Steven Stamkos, is also expected to return soon along with Victor Hedman, Ondrej Palat and Ryan McDonagh possibly making a return. A healthy Lightning squad could be trouble for the Panthers.
Intriguing Goalie Matchup
The Lightning have Andrei Vasilevskiy who could be on his way to winning his second Vezina Trophy once the season ends. On the other side, Florida has a guy with two Vezina Trophies already in Sergei Bobrovsky. This would be the same matchup from the notorious 2019 NHL Playoffs when the Columbus Blue Jackets swept the Tampa Bay Lightning.
In that 2019 series, Bobrovsky had a spectacular performance in the four games. However, Bobrovsky hasn’t been the most reliable player in the playoffs. In 38 career playoff appearances, Bobrovsky only has 12 wins to show for it. He also carries with him a 3.13 goals-against average in the playoffs.
In comparison, Vasilevskiy has 33 wins in 58 playoff appearances. His 2.37 goals-against average and .918 save percentage are both better than Bobrovsky as well.
A struggling Bobrovsky could be the demise of the red-hot Florida Panthers in this series. Game one is set for Sunday at 7:30 p.m. EST in Sunrise, Florida.
Featured Image Courtesy of theathletic.com