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Preview: Panthers Full of Belief as They Open Playoffs against Lightning

by Jameson Olive / @JamesonCoop / FloridaPanthers.com

SUNRISE, Fla. - The battle for the Sunshine State is about to begin.

In a series nearly 30 years in the making, the Panthers and Lightning will finally meet for the first time ever in the Stanley Cup Playoffs when the in-state rivals clash at BB&T Center on Sunday.

"We know they're going to be better, and we've got to be better ourselves," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said of the series. "It's going to be a great matchup, potentially a fantastic series. In the games we've played against them this year, the pace has been fun to watch and be a part of. Playoff hockey is only going to add to that. It's got the makings for something special."

Looking back at the regular-season series, you don't have to be a hockey expert to know that these two teams plain don't like each other. In fact, during their penultimate meeting before the playoffs got started, they combined for 154 penalty minutes, including 10 misconduct penalties.

Doing more than just holding their ground against the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Panthers clawed their way to a 5-2-1 record in the series, including outscoring the Lightning by a score of 9-1 during a pair of convincing victories in Sunrise to wrap up the season last week.

By virtue of those wins, the Panthers finished the season with their best-ever record (37-14-5), while also claiming the No. 2 seed in the Central Division and home-ice advantage in Round 1.

"The confidence is as good as it can be," Panthers defenseman Radko Gudas said. "We know we can beat these guys. We've done that all season long. I think we've had some great battles. We came up with the two points out of most of them. I think everybody believes in each other."

Leading the charge on offense for the Panthers heading into the series is a pair of superstars. Jonathan Huberdeau finished the season as the team's leader in assists (41) and points (61), while Aleksander Barkov had the most goals (26), including scoring eight in his final 10 games.

Also heating up, Sam Bennett activated his playoff-mode a little bit early, racking six goals and nine assists after being acquired by Florida at the trade deadline. Additionally, Alex Wennberg had five goals over his last five games, including scoring his second hat trick of the campaign.

In eight games against the Lightning this season, Wennberg and Barkov each recorded a team-high eight points, while Wennberg had the most goals (5) and Barkov had the most assists (7).

"We're all excited," said Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau, who notched seven points (three goals, four assists) against Tampa Bay this season. "We had a good skate this morning, good energy. The guys are ready. We've been waiting for this for a long time. This year's been fun. Yeah, we're excited. This week has been good for us, but now we're ready to get going."

In net for the Panthers in Game 1, Sergei Bobrovsky will look to build off his strong track record against the Lightning in the postseason. In 2019, the two-time Vezina Trophy winner registered a .932 save percentage while leading the Blue Jackets to a sweep of top-seeded Tampa Bay.

"It's definitely an exciting time for all of us, for the whole team," Bobrovsky said when asked about facing down the Lightning again. "We look forward to this opportunity. I think we have a great team. We have a great chance. We're all excited. It's going to be good, fun hockey."

Finishing with a 19-8-2 record, Bobrovsky, who has suited up in 38 career playoff games, went a solid 7-3-0 with a .911 save percentage over his final 12 appearances of the season, including turning aside 28 of 29 shots in a thrilling 5-1 win over the Lightning in his final start on May 8.

"He had an outstanding [last] game," Quenneville said. "I think he's had a balanced workload this year. He's fresh, he's ready and his attitude has always been in the right place. This is a great test for him and for us. We know what goaltending means to a team's success."

While the Panthers won 11 of 14 games - including an active six-game winning streak - to close out the season on a high note, the Lightning, although clearly still one of the top teams in the league, stumbled a bit down the stretch due to injuries and lost six of their final 13 contests.

That being said, Tampa Bay, like Florida, will be nearly at full health when the puck drops tonight, as Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos are both expected to be back in action.

Stamkos, who produced 34 points (17 goals, 17 assists) in 38 games this campaign, has been sideline since April 8 while nursing a lower-body injury, while Kucherov, who took home the Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP in 2019, has not played at all this season after offseason hip surgery.

Banged up and out of the lineup toward the end of the season, former Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Ondrej Palat are also expected to be back for the Bolts.

Up front, Brayden Point finished as Tampa Bay's leader in goals (23) and points (48). Behind him, Palat finished second in scoring with 46 points, while Hedman ranked third with 45 points. Against Florida this season, Point, Palat and Hedman all accumulated a team-high six points.

Leaning on a former Vezina Trophy winner of their own, the Lightning are expected to go with Andrei Vasilevskiy in goal in Game 1. Despite leading the NHL with 31 wins, the 26-year-old netminder struggled against the Panthers this season, going 2-4-0 with a .898 save percentage.

"We know they're a really good team," Huberdeau said. "They're getting a lot of key pieces back. We just have to get on them early and play our game. We know what we can do."

With arena capacity increasing to a little under 50% for the opening round of the playoffs, the Panthers are expected to have roughly 9,000 fans in the building for Game 1. Feeding off the home crowd all season, they went 20-5-3 in Sunrise, including 13-2-0 in their last 15 games.

That being said, Huberdeau is throwing out all numbers from the regular season.

Everyone has a fresh slate starting tonight, and the Panthers aim to take advantage.

"We played well against them all season long, but the playoffs are a different game," Huberdeau said. "The intensity level goes up in the playoffs, we know that. It doesn't matter how many games we won against this team during the season. It's all about the playoffs. We've got to win four games and it starts tonight."

PANTHERS vs. LIGHTNING

- ALL-TIME vs. TBL: 71-48-10-17

- ALL-TIME HOME vs. TBL: 42-16-4-10

- 2020-21 vs. TBL: 5-2-1

PANTHERS NOTES

- Aleksander Barkov led the Panthers in goals (26), even-strength goals (18), even-strength points (38) and shots (176) during the regular season. He also ranked second on the team in assists (32), points (58), power-play goals (7) and power-play points (19). He stands as the only player in the history of the franchise to produced six consecutive 50-point, 20-goal seasons.

-- Jonathan Huberdeau led Florida in assists (41), points (61) and power-play points (24) for the second straight season, while also ranking second on the team in goals (20) and even-strength points (37). In 38 career games against Tampa Bay, he's tallied 38 points (13 goals, 25 assists).

-- MacKenzie Weegar paced all Panthers defensemen in scoring with a career-high 35 points, including posting three goals and eight assists over his final eight games of the regular season. He also sat first among NHL blueliners in even-strength points (31) and plus/minus (tied-+29).

-- Set to make his postseason debut, Anthony Duclair recorded six goals and 10 assists over his last 14 games to finish the regular season with 32 points. Logging a career-best +27 rating this season, he also found the back of the net three times in seven games against the Lightning.

-- A two-time Stanley Cup champion, Patric Hornqvist has recorded 46 points (25 goals, 21 assists) in 90 career playoff games. During his first season with the Panthers, a team-leading eight of his 14 goals came on the power play, including potting a pair against the Lightning.

-- After being acquired from the Flames at the trade deadline, Sam Bennett posted 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in 10 games with the Panthers to close out the regular season. A veteran of 30 career playoff games, he's registered 19 points (11 goals, eight assists) in the postseason.

-- Frank Vatrano ranks tied for 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 led the NHL with 250 hits during the regular season.

PROJECTED LINEUP (SUBJECT TO CHANGE)

Forwards

Carter Verhaeghe - Aleksander Barkov - Anthony Duclair

Jonathan Huberdeau - Sam Bennett - Owen Tippett

Frank Vatrano - Alex Wennberg - Patric Hornqvist

Ryan Lomberg - Noel Acciari - Mason Marchment

Defensemen

Gustav Forsling - MacKenzie Weegar

Markus Nutivaara - Brandon Montour

Keith Yandle - Radko Gudas

Goaltenders

Sergei Bobrovsky

Chris Driedger

Scratches: Eetu Luostarinen, Juho Lammikko, Nikita Gusev, Aleksi Heponiemi, Anton Stralman, Matt Kiersted, Noah Juulsen, Spencer Knight, Kevin Connauton

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

Injured reserve: Aaron Ekblad (lower body)

RECENT TRANSACTIONS

- May 10: D Kevin Connauton was recalled to Florida's active roster.

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

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

IN-ARENA ACTIVATIONS

- 50/50 Raffle (floridapanthers.com/5050)

- All fans in attendance will receive a "Fear No One" rally towel courtesy of HairClub.

- To learn about safety protocols and the new "Red Reminders" program presented in conjunction with Baptist Health South Florida, visit FloridaPanthers.com/RedReminders.

- Visit FloridaPanthers.com/MobileOrdering to learn about mobile ordering at BB&T Center.

- Download the all-new FLA Live! Mobile app. Click HERE for all the info!

HOW TO WATCH / LISTEN

When: Sunday, May 16 at 7:30 p.m. ET

Where: BB&T Center - Sunrise, FL

TV: Bally Sports Florida, NBC Sports Network

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. 220 / Streaming Ch. 932

Tickets: HERE

Pre-Game Listen: Hear from Kevin Weekes on the latest episode of "Around the NHL."

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