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2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Florida Panthers Did Not Duck the Lightning. They Ran to Them

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The Florida Panthers won the Atlantic Division by virtue of a 5-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs last Tuesday in Sunrise. That win brought a first-round matchup with the rival Tampa Bay Lightning. // Roger Lee Photographer (561) 866-2000

FORT LAUDERDALE — When the Florida Panthers beat Buffalo last Saturday, it was mentioned to coach Paul Maurice that we were now going to see which team wanted to avoid the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With that win, the Panthers took a temporary lead in the Atlantic Division over the Boston Bruins.

Although Boston took over first after beating Pittsburgh later that night, the Bruins lost their final two games of the regular season.

Florida’s 5-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs gave the Panthers the Atlantic — and a first-round date with the rival Lightning.

Although the Bruins did not seem to have any interest in playing the Lightning, the Panthers sprinted to the opportunity.

Now they have it.

“We are very excited to be back in the playoffs especially the way last year went,” Matthew Tkachuk said. “I think it is super-fitting that we’re playing Tampa in this first round. What an unbelievable run they have been on since the All-Star break. They are playing well, we’re playing well. It’s going to make for a great series. I’m just excited to be in this series and have an opportunity to play in the playoffs again.”

Had the Panthers wanted to avoid the Lightning, it would have been very easy to do.

On Tuesday night, the Panthers trailed Toronto 2-0 after a lackluster first period.

Paul Maurice: The Stanley Cup Playoffs are ‘The Good Stuff’

The Panthers knew Boston was losing to the Senators at home since that game started 30 minutes prior and, had they preferred playing Toronto in the opening round, could have just continued down their current path.

Florida did no such thing.

The Panthers charged into the second with their collective hair on fire, putting together perhaps their most dominant 20 minutes of the season.

Sam Bennett said afterward that “we did not start the game like we were ready for the playoffs.’’

But after Maurice “had a good talk with us,’’ and the players talked amongst themselves, the Panthers came out flying.

Florida not only scored four goals in the second — including one from Carter Verhaeghe 27 seconds in — but outshot the Leafs 29-4.

The Panthers added a late goal and ran away from the Leafs — and into the waiting arms of their nemesis.

“We are going to have to play our best,” said Sergei Bobrovsky, who led the Blue Jackets to a sweep of the heralded Lightning in 2019 but is 0-2 against Tampa in the playoffs with the Panthers.

“This is going to be a good challenge. These are two good teams playing each other and the best team is going to win. We have a good team, a good group of guys who believe in one another. Again, this is going to be a good challenge.”

For weeks, it appeared the Panthers and Leafs would open the playoffs against each other.

But there was always an underlying potential of a third postseason meeting between the two Florida teams.

After the Panthers beat the Lightning 9-2 in Tampa on Feb. 17, a number of Lightning players mentioned the possibility of a playoff meeting.

Maurice said he was impressed that the Lightning did not quit as the Panthers got one bounce after another in that game — and was similarly impressed with his team when it did not shut things down when Tampa Bay took a 4-0 lead in a 5-3 win at Sunrise last month.

“We go into Tampa and win 9-2. The first shot goes about 5 1/2 feet wide of the net but hits someone in the asscheek and goes into the net,” Maurice said. “It was one of those games you see maybe once every two years. And they never quit. Like, straight through that game they never stopped playing. Then, we played them here and didn’t quit.

“So, that’s what this series is going to be. It’s not going to be the score. It’s going to be pride and fight. It’s going to be an awesome series. There is no quit in either room. If we’re all lucky, it can get to 7 games and in overtime because that’s all the juice you could handle in a hockey season in one series.”

In private, some Florida staffers hoped to have a chance to take on the Lightning.

Tampa Bay, after all, is the last NHL team to win the Stanley Cup in consecutive (2020, 2021) seasons.

The Lightning also knocked out the Panthers in both 2021 and 2022.

“It’s funny how things work out,’’ Bennett said. “It’s a great rivalry and I am sure the fans will love it. We’re definitely excited for it. We said this earlier: It doesn’t matter, you’re going to play a good team in the playoffs no matter what. We showed last year that it doesn’t matter where you finish or who you play. Playoffs are a different beast. I am just happy we played the right way.’’

That second-round sweep in 2022 led to numerous changes within the Panthers, including the hiring of Maurice to change the way Florida plays.

As one player said in private Saturday, “to be the man, you have to beat the man.’’

Tampa Bay may not be the prohibitive favorites to win the Stanley Cup this year, but with the likes of Andrei Vasilevskiy, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, and Steven Stamkos — not to mention Hall of Fame coach Jon Cooper — the Lightning are a first-round meeting many teams would love to avoid.

Boston seemed to think that way.

The Panthers did not.

For better or worse, the Panthers did not duck the Lightning.

To them, the Lightning remain “the man’’ until they beat them.

In his introductory press conference after being traded to the Panthers from Calgary in 2022, Tkachuk said while he still hated Edmonton from their ‘Battle of Alberta,’ he now hated Tampa Bay even more.

“Tampa has been the … top team in the league for the past [few years],’’ Tkachuk said. “Even before they won it, they probably had the best teams. Hopefully this is us showing that we’re one of those teams now.

“No better way to start this journey than to play Tampa first. I think it’s the perfect, perfect opportunity for us. What a great team over there. We’re going to have to be at our best.’’

For the most in-depth coverage of the Florida Panthers:

STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE QUARTERFINALS
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (WC1) VS. FLORIDA PANTHERS (ATL1)
GAME 1
  • When: Sunday, 12:30 p.m.
  • Where: Amerant Bank Arena, Sunrise
  • Local TV/National TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida/ESPN/ESPN+
  • Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (West Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); WCZR 101.7-FM (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM
  • Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932, NHL app
  • First Round Schedule — Game 1: Sunday at Florida, 12:30 p.m. (BSF, ESPN); Game 2: Tuesday at Florida, 7:30 (BSF, ESPN2); Game 3: Thursday at Tampa Bay, 7 (BSF, TBS); Game 4:Saturday Ap. 27 at Tampa Bay, 5 (BSF, TBS, TruTV); Game 5*:Monday Ap. 29 at Florida, TBA (BSF, TBA); Game 6*: Wednesday May 1 at Tampa Bay, TBA (BSF, TBA); Game 7*:Saturday May 4 at Florida, TBA (BSF, TBA). (*) — If necessary
  • 2023-24 Regular Season Series (Panthers Won 2-1) — At Tampa Bay: Panthers 3, Lightning 2 (Dec. 27)Panthers 9, Lightning 2 (Feb. 17). At Florida: Lightning 5, Panthers 3 (March 16).
  • All-time Regular Season Series: Florida leads 77-51-19, 10 ties
  • All-Time Postgame Series: Lightning Leads 2-0 (2021 first-round, 2022 ECS)

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