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Panthers vs. Lightning playoff preview

Florida, Tampa Bay meet in postseason for first time; Kucherov, Stamkos back for defending champions in first round

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

The first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs features 16 teams in eight division-based best-of-7 series, which start Saturday.

Today, NHL.com previews the Stanley Cup First Round between the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning.

 
No. 2 Florida Panthers vs. No. 3 Tampa Bay Lightning

Panthers: 37-14-5, 79 points

Lightning: 36-17-3, 75 points

Season series: FLA 5-2-1; TBL 3-5-0

Game 1: Sunday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, BSFL, BSSUN, SN, TVAS)

The Panthers and Lightning will make history with the first all-Florida matchup in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Lightning are the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Panthers haven't won a playoff series since 1996, when they lost the Stanley Cup Final. They were eliminated in four games by the New York Islanders last season in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers.

"We know them pretty well and they know us pretty well," Panthers center Aleksander Barkov said. "It's going to be a battle."

The Panthers and Lightning combined for 154 penalty minutes with four fighting majors, 10 misconduct penalties and six roughing minors in Florida's 5-1 win at home Saturday, the next-to-last game of the regular season for each. They averaged 41:59 in penalty minutes in their eight games against each other in the Discover Central Division.

"There's no secrets," Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. "You know the players, and we've played them so many times it's almost -- I don't want to say it's easier, because nothing in the playoffs is ever easy -- but I think guys know what to expect a lot more."

The Panthers, who won the final three games against the Lightning by a combined 14-4, enter the series having won six in a row and 11 of 14 since April 13 (11-2-1).

The Lightning should be getting reinforcements with forwards Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos expected to join the lineup after recovring from injury.

Kucherov, who led the NHL with 34 points (seven goals, 27 assists) in the playoffs last season, didn't play this regular season while recovering from hip surgery he had Dec. 29. He's been skating and a full participant in practice, and the plan was always for him to be ready for the start of the playoffs.

Stamkos, out since April 8, missed the last 16 games with a lower-body injury. At the time of his injury, he led the Lightning with 17 goals and was tied for second with 34 points.

Tampa Bay is also hoping for the return of defensemen Victor Hedman (lower body) and Ryan McDonagh (upper body), and forward Ondrej Palat (lower body). The defensemen each missed the past two games. Palat missed a 4-0 loss at Florida on Monday.

"They've got a couple aces coming back that haven't been in their lineup recently that are going to add a lot, a lot of skill to their lineup, special teams as well," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. "So we've got to be better than we've been. and I think welcoming that challenge is where we've got to go to, and that's where we're heading."

Video: FLA@TBL: Hedman beats Driedger for game-winner in OT

 
Game breakers

Panthers: Forward Jonathan Huberdeau, the Panthers' most dynamic skater, led them with 61 points (20 goals, 41 assists), including 19 points (six goals, 13 assists) in 13 games since April 13. He scored seven points (three goals, four assists) against the Lightning this season. He's third in Panthers history and first among active Florida players with 38 points (13 goals, 25 assists) in 38 games against Tampa Bay.

Lightning: Brayden Point led Tampa Bay with 48 points (23 goals, 25 assists). The forward scored six points (four goals, two assists) against the Panthers and has scored 21 points (11 goals, 10 assists) in 21 games against them. Kucherov likely would be the Lightning game breaker, but because he hasn't played this season, it's hard to determine the impact he could have on the series.

 
Goaltending

Panthers: They will carry three goalies, and the leash could be short for expected starter Sergei Bobrovsky, who was 19-8-2 with a 2.91 goals-against average and .906 save percentage in 31 games (30 starts). Bobrovsky was passed on the depth chart at times by Chris Driedger, who was 14-6-3 with three shutouts, a 2.07 GAA and .927 save percentage in 23 starts. Rookie Spencer Knight was 4-0-0 with a 2.32 GAA and .919 save percentage in four games (three starts).

Lightning: There are no questions about the starting goalie. It's Andrei Vasilevskiy, who won the Vezina Trophy in 2018-19, voted as the best goalie in the NHL. He could win it again this season. Vasilevskiy had 31 wins and five shutouts in 42 starts and was never pulled from a game this season. He had a 2.21 GAA and .925 save percentage. His backup is Curtis McElhinney, who was 4-6-2 with a 3.09 GAA and .875 save percentage in 12 starts.

 
Numbers to know

Panthers: They led the Central Division in goals per game (3.36) and shots on goal per game (34.9). Their plus-37 goal differential was second in the division behind the Carolina Hurricanes (plus-41). Florida also led the Central in games won by one goal (17).

Lightning: Tampa Bay was the only team in the NHL to win every game it led after two periods (26-0-0). The last two teams to finish the regular season with a 1.000 winning percentage when leading after two periods went on to win the Stanley Cup (Pittsburgh Penguins, 39-0-0 in 2015-16; Chicago Blackhawks, 25-0-0 in 2014-15).

 
X-factors

Panthers: Sam Bennett has been one of the Panthers' best players since they acquired the forward in a trade with the Calgary Flames on April 12. Bennett set a Panthers record for most points in his first 10 games, scoring 15 (six goals, nine assists) with a plus-12 rating, breaking the mark held by Pavel Bure, who scored 13 points (10 goals, three assists) in his first 10 games with Florida in 1998-99. Bennett ened the regular season with a six-game point streak (three goals, seven assists).

Lightning: Mikhail Sergachev has been an under-the-radar, puck-moving defenseman playing major minutes, and his role grows bigger if Hedman and McDonagh aren't at full strength. Sergachev scored 30 points (four goals, 26 assists) playing all 56 games this season. He averaged 21:58 of ice time per game, second on the Lightning behind Hedman's 25:03.

Video: TBL@FLA: Bennett doubles Panthers lead with PPG 

 
They said it

"It's a fresh start, it's a whole new ballgame. We should be excited about the way the season went for us in a lot of ways. I thought we got a lot of guys included in our team game, got some depth over the course of the season, but this is what we play for and this is what we shoot for in our careers. It's been a special year, and we know we've got our hands full with our opponent." -- Panthers coach Joel Quenneville

"The goal every year coming in if you want to have a chance you've got to make the playoffs. That was our goal, to make the playoffs. In a unique year, an unprecedented year, with the division switching around and you're only playing inside your division, locking horns with the same teams eight times through the year, it's tough. The guys buckled down and made the playoffs. Good on them." -- Lightning coach Jon Cooper

 
Will win if …

Panthers: Their goaltending holds up with zero to minimal changes. They will need to get on top of the Lightning early with their forecheck to generate chances off the rush. They will also need to limit Kucherov and Stamkos, provided they are in the lineup, because they will be coming in with fresh legs.

Lightning: Their defense holds up, and Kucherov and Stamkos can be impact players right away. They need to limit Florida's high-powered attack too; the Panthers were the only team to average more than three goals per game against the Lightning this season (3.88).

 
How they look

Panthers projected lineup

Carter Verhaeghe -- Aleksander Barkov -- Anthony Duclair

Jonathan Huberdeau -- Sam Bennett -- Owen Tippett

Mason Marchment -- Alexander Wennberg -- Frank Vatrano

Nikita Gusev -- Noel Acciari -- Ryan Lomberg

Gustav Forsling -- MacKenzie Weegar

Markus Nutivaara -- Brandon Montour

Keith Yandle -- Radko Gudas

Sergei Bobrovsky

Chris Driedger

Scratched: Matt Kiersted, Eetu Luostarinen, Noah Juulsen, Lucas Wallmark, Anton Stralman, Grigori Denisenko, Aleksi Heponiemi, Kevin Connauton, Juho Lammikko, Spencer Knight

Injured: Patric Hornqvist (upper body)

Lightning projected lineup

Ondrej Palat -- Brayden Point -- Nikita Kucherov

Alex Killorn -- Anthony Cirelli -- Steven Stamkos

Blake Coleman -- Yanni Gourde -- Tyler Johnson

Pat Maroon -- Ross Colton -- Mathieu Joseph

Victor Hedman -- Erik Cernak

Ryan McDonagh -- David Savard

Mikhail Sergachev -- Jan Rutta

Andrei Vasilevskiy

Curtis McElhinney

Scratched: Alex Barre-Boulet, Mitchell Stephens, Daniel Walcott, Fredrik Claesson, Cal Foote, Luke Schenn, Ben Thomas, Christopher Gibson

Injured: Barclay Goodrow (upper body) 

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