Two old Florida foes will meet in the second round of the playoffs, as the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida Panthers are ready to see how they measure up against Tampa Bay, the defending Stanley Cup champions.
NHL playoff odds have the Panthers as -143 favorites and the Lightning as +120 underdogs.
It’s a matchup that pits the best regular-season team against a side that has won nine successive playoff series and two Stanley Cups.
Contrastingly, the Panthers won their first playoff series since making the Stanley Cup Final in 1996. If you’re an optimist who believes in prophecy, that alone is a good omen.
Prior to the start of the postseason, the Panthers were +550 second favorites to hoist Lord Stanley. After ousting the Capitals, Florida, whose odds have shifted to a shorter +375, remain second favorites behind frontrunners Colorado.
NHL betting lines have moved for Tampa, too.
The Lightning, who started the postseason at +1000, are now +600 third favorites to win it all.
The first round of the playoffs saw five of eight series go to a decisive seventh game. That trend, such is the unparalleled level of parity in today’s NHL, will likely continue.
Panthers-Lightning Split Season Series
Both teams won two games and triumphed in each other’s building. Each team also won via a lopsided score. Both the Panthers and Lightning were 2-0 when they scored first and the team that edged the third period won each encounter.
The Panthers routed Tampa Bay 9-3 in Florida on Dec. 30, a game in which Andrei Vasilevskiy didn’t take part. He wasn’t even dressed and nor was backup netminder Brian Elliott. Third and fourth-string goaltenders Maxime Lagace and Hugo Alnefelt shared the workload in a losing one-sided affair that offered a grievous misrepresentation of Tampa.
Florida’s No. 1 Sergei Bobrovsky only started in one of four games, which resulted in a 3-2 overtime defeat.
Youngster and backup netminder Spencer Knight got the nod in the other three encounters, including an 8-4 setback in Florida on April 24. Knight was pulled on that occasion, allowing Bobrovsky to see a bit more action against the back-to-back Cup winners, though in unenviable circumstances.
But make no mistake, Bobrovsky is the Panthers’ undisputed starting goaltender for Round 2.
Why Tampa Has Marginal Edge Going Into Series
This series should be as close as the Tampa Bay vs. Toronto first-round, seven-game dogfight.
While Florida has formidable scoring depth – four players who scored 30 or more goals – and scored 4.11 goals per game in the regular season, easily the highest average of any NHL team, they palpably lack arguably the most meaningful piece of the complex puzzle, Stanley Cup winners.
Having won the last two Stanley Cups, the Lightning have a contingent almost entirely made up of proven winners. That’s not the case in the opposing dressing room.
Florida has just two players who’ve lifted Lord Stanley, one of whom, Carter Verhaeghe, won it with Tampa Bay in 2019-20. The other, Patric Hornqvist, won it with the Pens in 2016 and 2017.
The Lightning also have a distinct advantage between the pipes.
Vasilevskiy is, contrary to popular belief, indeed fallible. He didn’t play extraordinarily throughout the entirety of the first round and, like every other human being, endures subpar outings. The way he performs in decisive games and rebounds after defeat, however, does belie ordinary human construct.
Tampa’s former Vezina and Conn Smythe winner is 17-0 with five shutouts, a 1.47 goals against average (GAA) and a .942 save percentage after losing a playoff game since the start of the 2019-20 postseason. He has won two Stanley Cups and isn’t at all phased by the prospect of elimination or series-deciding games. He also boasts a 53-32 all-time postseason record.
Compare that best-in-class resume to Bobrovsky, who earned his second playoff series win in 12 years when Florida eliminated the Caps. With a 3.18 GAA and a .900 save percentage, the 33-year-old netminder is an underwhelming 17-25 in the playoffs.
Bobrovsky enjoyed a stellar regular season, posting a 35-6-0 record. But he’ll have to be as good, if not better, than his opposite number for the Panthers to advance, an unlikely scenario.
There are two additional reasons you should be weary of backing the Panthers.
Tampa’s advantage going into the series became much less discernible when Brayden Point suffered an injury in Game 7 against the Maple Leafs.
Point, the NHL’s most prolific playoff scorer since Mario Lemieux, scores at a staggering .51 goals-per-game clip.
If Point is unable to return, Florida’s chances of defeating the Lightning increase significantly. Even if he does return, Point probably won’t have the same unrivaled impact on proceedings.
However, elite, dynasty-chasing teams often have unheralded combatants come out of the woodwork.
Nicholas Paul’s Game 7 heroics, in which the 27-year-old scored his first and second career playoff markers in the 2-1 win, is case in point of what a championship team does in the face of morose adversity.
The question is whether the Lightning can eliminate the regular season’s best and most lethal team devoid of their top playoff scorer.
The answer is still yes, albeit not quite so unequivocally. Take the Lightning in seven games.
Panthers vs. Lightning Prediction
Series Winner: Tampa Bay Lightning +120