The Tampa Bay Lightning will look a lot different on Sunday when it opens its playoff series against the Florida Panthers at BB&T Center.
The Lightning, as we all know, were missing some key pieces not only in the final two regular season games won by Florida here last week, but throughout the season.
The biggest names coming back are two of Tampa Bay’s biggest stars: Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.
Say what you will about the cap-strapped Lightning circumventing the salary cap by stashing these two players on the long-term injury list only for them to be ready for Game 1 (when salary cap rules don’t matter) but the Bolts broke no rules.
Sure, Kucherov had surgery in December and went on the long-term injured list for a reason. But he probably could have played if the Lightning really needed him to.
It did not and he did not.
With Stamkos and Kucherov on LTIR, the Lightning went from being over the cap to having room to work with.
The Blackhawks had a similar situation when they had Patrick Kane on LTIR with a broken collarbone in 2016 but he was (surprise!) ready to play in Game 1 when the salary cap wasn’t a concern.
”Kane’s situation was, he was skating a little bit, but Kucherov has been skating for a long time here,” Joel Quenneville said. “But (Kucherov) hasn’t played all year, Kane played some of the year as has Stamkos. High-skilled guys find a way to make an impact in games and in a series no matter how much or well they’re playing. They have that element that can change a momentum at the end of a night. We have a lot of respect for them.”
It is not only Kucherov and Stamkos returning; in that previous series against the Panthers, coach Jon Cooper sat two of Tampa Bay’s best defensemen in Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh. They are back tonight as well.
Pat Maroon, suspended for the final game for fighting Brandon Montour last Saturday night, also returns.
“You know their team has a lot of weapons,” Quenneville said. “Those guys on the backend only enhance what we’re talking about. You have Hedman on the rush, at the point of the power play, jumping into the attack. The other guy is very good. All four guys, it’s a completely different team than we saw at the end of the season and we got them at the advantage of the schedule. Hey, we know they’re going to be better and we have to be better ourselves.”
Although the Lightning will have some fresh legs in the lineup, the Panthers are expecting the physicality we have seen between these two to continue.
We’re not going to see 154 penalty minutes between the two as we did last weekend, but the bad blood should show itself pretty early.
”We had some great battles,” Radko Gudas said.
Before the Panthers played the Lightning to end the regular season, Maroon told reporters that his team wanted to set the tone and let the Panthers know they were playing the defending champs and not some schleps from up the road.
“When they leave the rink Monday, they should be thinking about, ‘Holy shit, we’re playing the Tampa Bay Lightning’,” Maroon said. “We want to make it hard on them, make it physical. We’ve got to play with jam, be hungry.”
So, did the Panthers say that?
”No, no one said that,” Gudas said Sunday morning. “This is what we play for, the ultimate goal from Day 1. We wanted to have a strong season to feel good about ourselves when we make the playoffs.
“Everyone in the locker room did a great job of holding each other accountable and playing the right way from Game 1. We’re really confident in this group.”
FRESH FLORIDA LINKS
Not counting this post nor the ones to come from Game 1, but Florida Hockey Now currently has three stories up from Sunday and a total of seven since Saturday morning.
That’s a lot of Florida Panthers coverage.
This morning I posted a story on Sasha Barkov being a favorite to win the Selke Trophy as well as being a potential finalist for the league MVP award.
Barkov spoke with me on Saturday afternoon about a lot of things but recognizes that without Florida’s success this season, whatever he may do on the ice would not get as much notice. It really is a good read if I do say so myself.
And, if you’re not a subscriber to FHN, a good chunk of the story is free.
— FHN also takes a look at the goalie matchup as Sergei Bobrovsky and Andrei Vasilevskiy meet up in the postseason for the first time since 2019. That worked out pretty well for Bob and the Blue Jackets.
— The Panthers talk about the excitement level of being back in the playoffs — for reals this time.
— The best rivalries in Florida are all about football, but the Panthers and Lightning are getting there.
— I will be joining the good folks on Channel 7 tonight as Sports Xtra is LIVE! from the BB&T Center at 11:30.
Who’s ready for some #playoff hockey?! We’re LIVE tonight from the @thebbtcenter! @GeorgeRichards joins us on @7SportsXtra at 11:30PM! Here we go! #StanleyCupPlayoffs #flapanthers #NHLPlayoffs #nhl #Game1 pic.twitter.com/SucnI8WeLT
— Josh Moser (@TheMozKnowz) May 16, 2021
— Helene Elliotte of the LA Times likes the Panthers to beat the Bolts.
— Dave Hyde of the Sentinel reminds us that Tampa has become Titletown, USA. Can the Panthers slow their roll?
— Two stories in the Sentinel today: David Furones breaks down the series.
FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STATE
The Tampa Bay Times wonders if this opening round series will finally give us the true Sunshine State rivalry. The Times also has a piece on how the Panthers have been so successful this season.
— Our pal Erik Erlendssen runs Lightning Insider and reminds us that the Bolts are about to get a big jolt of offense with the return of Kucherov and Stamkos. We know Erik, we know.
— Erik is also covering the series for the Palm Beach Post.
— The Athletic offers odds and picks for the playoffs — of which the Panthers and Lightning are a part.
AROUND THE NHL
Our old friend Craig Anderson turns 40 this month and was coaching youth baseball in Parkland before the Capitals called in December to be Washington’s No. 3 goalie.
On Saturday, he was pressed into service — and helped the Capitals beat Boston in Game 1.
PS: If you need a pregame or postgame spot before/after Panthers games, check out the Inn Field Pub in Sunrise.
You can even get a picture with the Craig Anderson signed stick hanging on the wall!
Going to the #FlaPanthers game tonight? The unofficial pre and postgame party will be at the Inn Field Pub in Sunrise — 11439 W Oakland Park Blvd., just a long slapshot from BB&T Center. Great wings, burgers and the @JamesonCoop ballpark footlong hot dog. Tell Lisa I sent ya. pic.twitter.com/j4CzNxd0Mx
— George Richards (@GeorgeRichards) May 16, 2021
— The Bruins are out of mulligans after losing Game 1 to Andy and the Caps. (Boston Hockey Now)
— The talking points from the Bruins side of things. (BHN)
— The Penguins are playing Sunday afternoon, but here’s everything you need to know. (PHN)
— And, from the Islanders side of the aisle. (NYIHN)
— A Blues-Avs preview from Sr. Dater. (CHN)
Chris Bosh, a huge part of the Miami Heat’s Big 3 and a legend in Toronto, is headed to the basketball Hall of Fame.
If you’re ever in Springfield, Mass., check it out.
— Trevor Bauer took out the Marlins on Saturday.
— An update on the injured Jazz Chisholm…
— The Heat also got knocked around Saturday night, losing to the Bucks.