2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Panthers vs. Lightning Eastern 1st Round preview


The first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs features 16 teams in eight best-of-7 series, which start Saturday. Today, NHL.com previews the Eastern Conference First Round between the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning.

(1A) Florida Panthers vs. (WC1) Tampa Bay Lightning

Panthers: 52-24-6, 110 points

Lightning: 45-29-8, 98 points

Season series: FLA: 2-1-0, TBL: 1-2-0

Game 1: Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET at Amerant Bank Arena (ESPN, SN, TVAS).

The Florida Panthers will try to make a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final and their first step is the Eastern Conference First Round against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Panthers, who lost the 2023 Final in five games to the Vegas Golden Knights, won the Atlantic Division in their final regular-season game Tuesday, jumping over the Boston Bruins. That earned them a date with their cross-state rivals, who were seemingly locked into the first wild card from the East for weeks.

“It’s going to be great,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “Both teams know how to play hard, both teams have some high-end skill on it. It’ll be a great battle, great for the fans.”

Each team took a different route to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Panthers were the second wild card last season, clinching a berth in the final days. They then defeated the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes to reach the Final.

This year, they go in as one of the favorites from the East after the second-best regular season in their history (122 points in 2021-22). It’s the fifth straight season they have reached the playoffs after making it twice in the previous 18.

The Lightning, who won the Stanley Cup in 2020 and 2021 and reached the Final in 2022, started this season without goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who missed the first 20 games because of offseason back surgery. They went 9-6-5 without him.

Tampa Bay has made the postseason 10 times in 11 seasons, but this is the first time it’s been a wild card. In fact, this is the first time it made the playoffs without finishing in the top three of its division since 1995-96.

The Panthers and Lightning will meet in the playoffs for the third time. Tampa Bay won the 2021 first round in six games and swept Florida in the 2022 second round.

“It’s always fireworks when we play these guys, always a good game,” Panthers forward Carter Verhaeghe said. “They’re an awesome team and really skilled. They have all the elements of a really good team.”

Game breakers

Panthers: Forward Sam Reinhart had a breakout season scoring 57 goals, which shattered his previous NHL career high of 33 in 2021-22. He scored 27 of Florida’s 63 power-play goals and was tied with forward Matthew Tkachuk with 55 even-strength points. Among those to play at least 60 games, he led the NHL with a 24.5 percent shooting percentage. He’s also defensive-minded, ranking second among Panthers forwards in plus-minus (plus-29) behind captain Aleksander Barkov (plus-33).

Lightning: How could it be anyone but Nikita Kucherov? The forward has had a season for the ages, leading the NHL with a career-high 144 points (44 goals, 100 assists). He now has the three most productive seasons in Lightning history (128 points in 2018-19, 113 in 2022-23). He’s the first Eastern Conference player with at least 144 points in a season since Mario Lemieux (161) and Jaromir Jagr (149) for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1995-96. How dominant is Kucherov? He has 54 more points than Tampa Bay’s second-leading scorer, Brayden Point (90).

Goaltending

Panthers: It’s almost hard to believe that Alex Lyon and not Sergei Bobrovsky began the 2023 playoffs as the starter. Once Bobrovsky was in goal, he dominated, going 12-6 with a 2.78 goals-against average, .915 save percentage and one shutout, including a 12-game run between Game 5 of the first round against the Bruins and Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Hurricanes, when he faced 465 shots and made 438 saves to go 11-1 with a 1.95 GAA and .942 save percentage. He followed that up this season by going 36-17-4 with a 2.37 GAA, .915 save percentage and six shutouts in 58 games. His backup was Anthony Stolarz, who was 16-7-2 with a 2.03 GAA .925 save percentage and two shutouts in 27 games (24 starts).

Lightning: In a recent poll among NHL players, they were asked which goalie they would want on their team if they had to win one game. Almost half (46.92 percent) picked Vasilevskiy. And why not? In 110 postseason games, he’s 65-42 with a 2.27 GAA, .921 save percentage and seven shutouts. Since the Lightning were swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2019 first round, Vasilevskiy is 50-27 with a 2.21 GAA and .924 save percentage in the postseason. When he’s on his game, there may not be a better goalie in the League. He has two Stanley Cup titles and three straight trips to the Final to prove it.

Numbers to know

Panthers: The Panthers don’t like allowing goals. They led the League in goals-against (2.41 per game). Their number was impressive at home, giving up 2.56 goals per game, but they were even stingier on the road (2.27). They come into the playoffs hot, finishing 5-1-1 and allowing 1.71 goals per game.

Lightning: If there is anything the Lightning know how to do, it’s score goals. They were fifth in the NHL and second in the East with 3.51 goals per game. A big reason was their power play, which led the NHL (28.6 percent). and why wouldn’t they with forwards Kucherov, Stamkos and Point on the man-advantage with all-world defenseman Victor Hedman and forward Nicholas Paul in the bump role? Bobrovksy and the Panthers will be put to the test in this series.

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