For the first time in 26 years, the Panthers are on to the second round. After a hard fought series with the Washington Capitals, the road only gets tougher for the Cats. The good news is that they finally got over the mental hurdle of winning a playoff series. Now, they must get over another mental hurdle: the battle of Florida.
Indeed, it is that the defending champs are waiting on the other side.
The battle of Florida, Panthers vs Lightning round two, commences this week. Both teams have a tremendous amount to prove in what will almost certainly be the premier matchup of the second round. Here’s how the teams match up.
If there’s anyone out there who is unfamiliar with the embarrassment of riches the Lightning possess at forward, know this: they’re really good. Steven Stamkos is in the midst of a resurgent season in which he’s tallied a career high in points. 2019 MVP Nikita Kucherov has struggled with injuries this season, but had an impressive first round of the playoffs. Scoring wingers Ondrej Palat, Anthony Cirelli, and Alex Killorn round out an experienced and talented top six.
That list even excludes Brayden Point, who may be the player the Panthers struggle to contain the most. The speedy 26 year old will likely be sidelined for the first few games with a lower body injury.
As scary as that group looks on paper, the Panthers still likely have the edge in the forward department. Many of Tampa’s forwards are on the wrong side of 30 and starting to decline. They also lost much of their bottom six depth last offseason. While they did a decent job replacing much of it, this is a watered down version of the team they lost to last year.
The biggest hurdle for the Panthers will be limiting the Tampa power play. In last year’s battle of Florida, the Lightning went 8/20 (40%) on the power play. That was the Panthers’ Achilles heel in that series. Tampa’s chemistry on the man advantage kept Florida on their toes throughout.
To mitigate their scoring chances on the power play, the focus for the Panthers should be clogging up the middle of the ice. It is vital they don’t overreact to a Stamkos or Kucherov slap shot from the outside, as that will open up passes to the slot area. As long as they stay disciplined on the penalty kill, the Panthers have the edge in the forward department.
Without a doubt, the Lightning have the best defenseman in this series, and possibly the league, Victor Hedman. The 2018 Norris Trophy winner amassed 85 points (20 G 65 A) this past season, the highest of his career, while also playing shutdown defense. The Panthers will notice his presence on the ice and will need to constantly account for it.
Their number two and three defensemen, Ryan Mcdonagh and Mikhail Sergachev, do have holes. They’re incredibly talented and reliable players in their own right, but they are slow-footed. It does open some opportunities for the Panthers to get their speedy players some scoring chances against the two of them.
Their other three defensemen are solid, but nothing special. Jan Rutta, Cal Foote, and Zach Bogosian have all had their moments, but it would be unreasonable to expect for them to slow down the elite offense Florida boasts. They also do not offer enough offensively to counter their defensive limitations. It is certainly a step down from the defensive depth they saw against Washington, and it would behoove Florida to take advantage of that.
Goaltending For The Battle of Florida
The battle in net may be the most obvious advantage Tampa has in this series. Sergei Bobrovsky has been excellent for the Panthers thus far, but Andrei Vasilevskiy has been the league’s best goaltender for the past four years. He looked mortal in their first round series against Toronto, but shut the door in their closeout game seven.
On the series, Vasilevskiy said “many goals were scored because I couldn’t see anything. I’m pretty sure that was the game plan for them, to get in front.”
Screens are a goalie’s worst nightmare, regardless of their skill level. That needs to be an adjustment the Panthers make in this series. The Panthers love passing to get clean looks at the net, but Vasy is too big and too mobile for that to be a viable primary scoring option. The goals in this series need to be dirty and gritty in front of the net goals. Easier said than done of course, but the Panthers are no strangers to finding different ways to score.
This will likely be the best series of the second round, and I fully expect it to go the distance. Whoever comes out of this series will likely be the favorite to make it to the cup final. The Panthers improved greatly after last year’s defeat, and are ready to win at all costs. Tampa knows how to handle any situation they find themselves in, but they will feel the absences from players who moved on in the offseason. In this year’s battle of Florida, it will be the Florida Panthers in seven games.
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