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Preview: Panthers and Lightning Battle in Prelude to Playoff Series

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop /

SUNRISE, Fla. - The Panthers and Lightning are about to see a whole lot of each other.

In a prelude to a playoff matchup nearly 30 years in the making, the Sunshine State rivals will both be looking to lock down home-ice advantage in the upcoming series when they wrap up the regular season with a critical two-game set at BB&T Center beginning on Saturday night.

Tied for second place in the Central Division with 75 points apiece, the Panthers (35-14-5) will need to take at least three of four points over the course of the two games in order to secure home-ice as the Lightning (36-15-3) will hold the tiebreaker due to having more regulation wins.

However, regardless of how the standings shake out, the two intrastate foes are destined to meet in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time ever as the No. 2 and 3 seeds in the division.

"You want to get it, and if you don't get it then you've got to deal with it," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said of benefits of having home-ice advantage in the playoffs. "It's an opportunity for us. To get home-ice, we've got to get points in both games. … It's a tall order, but at the same time we've had great games with them this year. We've had very competitive games."

Up until this point, the season series certainly has been tight.

Although the Panthers boast a 3-2-1 record in the previous six head-to-head matchups, the Lightning own a narrow 23-22 advantage in goals. And after the Panthers won two of three games to open up the series, the Lightning went on to take two of the next three after that.

"Obviously, it's going to be a lot of games against them," Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. "They'll figure out how we play, and we'll figure out how they play. It's going to be a battle."

Riding high heading into the all-important matchup, the Panthers have won eight of their last 10 games to gain momentum and climb power rankings across the league. Extending their winning streak to four games, they slipped past the Stars 5-4 in overtime in their last game on Monday.

In that victory, Jonathan Huberdeau, Nikita Gusev, MacKenzie Weegar, Gustav Forsling and Barkov all found the back of the net, while Spencer Knight made 25 saves between the pipes.

Huberdeau currently leads the team in assists (40) and points (59), while Barkov has the most goals (26). One of the top goal-scorers in the league for more than a month, Barkov has netted 18 goals over his last 23 games, touching twine in 14 different contests during that epic stretch.

Of Barkov's 56 points this season, a team-high six have come against Tampa Bay.

"No matter who he's playing with, he's making everybody else better," Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle said. "I think that shows how elite he is. He doesn't need to play with the same guys every night. I think you can put anyone on his line and he'll make them a better player. To have a superstar like that, a guy that can drive the bus for our team, it's really amazing."

Getting closer to operating at full capacity as the playoffs approach, Sam Bennett, who's recorded 13 points (five goals, eight assists) in nine games since being acquired from the Flames at the trade deadline, will return to Florida's lineup tonight after missing one game.

As for Carter Verhaeghe and Patric Hornqvist, who have each missed several games due to upper-body injuries, Quenneville said the forward duo should be back for Monday's matchup.

"If this was the first playoff game, they'd be playing," Quenneville said.

Making his first start since May 1, Sergei Bobrovsky will man the crease for the Panthers against the Lightning. Owning an 18-8-2 record with a. 904 save percentage, the two-time Vezina Trophy winner has gone 2-2-0 in four starts against Tampa Bay so far this season.

On the second half of a back-to-back, the Lightning enter tonight's matchup on the heels of a 5-2 loss to the Stars at Amalie Arena on Friday. Overall, Tampa Bay has won seven of its last 10 games while outscoring the opposition 31-22, despite their power play operating at just 16.7%.

In the loss to Dallas, Blake Coleman and Alex Barre-Boulet each lit the lamp for the Lightning, while Curtis McElhinney gave up five goals on 31 shots, including three in the second period.

"We didn't play very well," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper told reporters after the game. "We didn't execute, we didn't defend well, and we didn't play hard in the way we normally do."

With Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov both still out of action, Brayden Point leads Tampa Bay in scoring with 48 points (23 goals, 25 assists). Under him, Ondrej Palat is second with 46 points (15 goals, 31 assists), while Victor Hedman is third with 45 points (nine goals, 36 assists).

Leading the charge on offense against the Panthers, Point, Hedman and Palat have all notched six points through the first six games of the season series. In the terms of goals, Point and Tyler Johnson have netted four each, while Alexander Volkov and Mathieu Joseph have three apiece.

"We don't want to give them anything," Forsling said of trying to shutdown Tampa Bay's attack. "I think both teams are going to try to prove how good they are coming into the playoffs here."

Yet to announce a starting goaltender, the Lightning might also go with a former Vezina Trophy winner tonight. Leading the NHL with 31 wins, Andrei Vasilevskiy could potentially get the call against the Panthers. Of his eight regulation losses this season, two have come against Florida.

Starting four of six games in the season series, Vasilevskiy's gone 2-2-0 with a .916 save percentage.

"It's a rivalry, so it's going to be a battle," Barkov said. "We're excited for tonight's game."


FLA: 35-14-5, 75 PTS

TBL: 36-14-3, 75 PTS

FLA all-time vs. TBL: 69-48-10-17


-- Aleksander Barkov leads Florida in goals (26) and shots on goal (172). Over his last 17 games, he's registered 17 points, including racking up a team-leading 13 goals in that span.

-- Jonathan Huberdeau leads the Panthers in assists (40) and points (59). In his last 12 games, he's accumulated 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) while earning a strong +15 rating. His 36 points (12 goals, 24 assists) against the Lightning are the most against any team in his career.

-- Anthony Duclair has recorded 17 points (seven goals, 10 assists) over his last 14 games to push his point total on the season to 31. In that 14-game span, he owns a team-high +16 rating.

-- MacKenzie Weegar leads Florida's defensemen in scoring with a career-high 34 points (five goals, 29 assists). He also ranks tied for first among NHL blueliners in even-strength points (29).

-- Sam Bennett has scored five goals over his last eight games.

-- Frank Vatrano ranks third on the Panthers with 18 goals, including a team-leading seven game-winners. Of those 18 goals, 14 have been scored in the third period or overtime.

-- Radko Gudas leads the Panthers and ranks tied for first in the NHL in hits with 235.

-- Keith Yandle is one point away from reaching 600 in his NHL career.



Mason Marchment - Aleksander Barkov - Anthony Duclair

Jonathan Huberdeau - Sam Bennett - Owen Tippett

Frank Vatrano - Alex Wennberg - Aleksi Heponiemi

Ryan Lomberg - Noel Acciari - Nikita Gusev


Gustav Forsling - MacKenzie Weegar

Markus Nutivaara - Brandon Montour

Keith Yandle - Radko Gudas


Sergei Bobrovsky

Spencer Knight

Scratches: Eetu Luostarinen, Juho Lammikko, Grigori Denisenko, Patric Hornqvist (upper body), Matt Kiersted, Nikita Gusev, Noah Juulsen, Anton Stralman, Chris Driedger (lower body), Carter Verhaeghe (upper body)

Taxi squad: Kevin Connauton, Scott Wilson, Cole Schwindt, Brady Keeper, Sam Montembeault, Philippe Desrosiers

Injured reserve: Aaron Ekblad (lower body)


- May 4: G Philippe Desrosiers was loaned to the Taxi Squad.

- May 3: G Philippe Desrosiers was recalled from the Taxi Squad.


- 50/50 Raffle 

- Reverse Retro Saturday

- A limited number of fans will be admitted to BB&T Center for home games this season. Learn that have been taken as a part of the "Red Reminders" program presented in conjunction with Baptist Health South Florida at

- Mobile Ordering is now available at BB&T Center for Panthers games. Visit for all the info.


When: Saturday, May 8 at 7:00 p.m. ET

Where: BB&T Center - Sunrise, FL

TV: Bally Sports Sun, ESPN+

Stream: Bally Sports App

Radio: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); 107.9 FM/1370 AM WZTA (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM Ch. 219 / Streaming Ch. 932

Tickets: HERE

Pre-Game Listen: Check out the first episode of "Panthers Pipeline" featuring defenseman Max Gildon.

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