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2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Panthers vs. Lightning: Three Keys to Game 1

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The Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning mix it up during their game in Sunrise last month. // Roger Lee Photographer (561) 866-2000

FORT LAUDERDALE — For the third time in four years, the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning will clash in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

While Florida is still looking to get one over on Tampa Bay for the first time, this cross-state rivalry features two of the most successful teams in the NHL over the past few years.

Since 2020, the Eastern Conference champion has come out of the Sunshine State.

But the Lightning is the only of the two which has finished the job, winning the Stanley Cup in 2020 and 2021.

Tampa Bay knocked the Panthers out of the playoffs in 2021, then swept them in the second round in 2022.

“Yeah, it’s a rivalry, there’s no doubt about it,” Aaron Ekblad said.

“But, you know, they’ve had the blueprint. They’ve won. They’ve had success. They’re still a hungry team, you can see it every time we play them so there’s not going to be any easy ice out there. It’s gonna be a tough battle and the excitement is definitely there in every playoff series, especially one with the Tampa Bay Lightning.”

Here are some things to watch for during the first-round clash between the Panthers and Lightning:

Panthers PK vs Lightning PP

Tampa Bay’s power play has been the most unstoppable in the NHL all season.

The Lightning finished the season with the top-ranked power play in the NHL, led by Nikita Kucherov and his league-leading 53 power play points.

He has been the vessel that power play unit has ran through, with 40 of his 100 assists coming on the man advantage — and he has a lot of options to pass to.

Steven Stamkos has been one of the NHL’s most potent scorers on the power play too, notching the third-most power play goals (19) thanks to his always deadly one-timer from the flank.

Florida has made the proper adjustments on the penalty kill after it proved to be their Achilles heel in the Stanley Cup Final last year.

Once new additions Kevin Stenlund, Niko Mikkola and Dmitry Kulikov fully adjusted to their roles on the penalty kill, the Panthers have been one of the best penalty-killing teams in the league.

Since Nov. 8, they rank third in the NHL at 84.2 percent.

“The biggest weakness that we had last year was our penalty kill,” coach Paul Maurice said. “Stenlund and those defensemen have helped us get it it to the Top 10.“

Can the Panthers solve Andrei Vasilevskiy?

The last time these two teams faced off, Andrei Vasilevskiy was the story of the series.

Vasilevskiy had the best save percentage a starting goalie had ever had in a playoff series, posting a .981 save percentage and a 0.75 goals-against average in the four-game second-round sweep.

He has been playing to that standard for the past month, going 7-4-1 with a .912 save percentage and a 2.71 goals-against average since March 16.

On that day, Vasilevskiy stopped a whopping 47 of 50 shots in a 5-3 win over the Panthers.

“It was the Vasy we’ve seen for the past decade,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said after the game. “He’s always the best. Your goalie, at times, is going to have to bail you out.”

Throughout Tampa Bay’s deep playoff runs over the years, Vasilevskiy has done just that.

New-look Panthers successful vs. Lightning

From the time the Panthers underwent a facelift in the 2022 offseason, they have had the Lighting’s number.

Florida is 4-2-1 against the Lightning since the Matthew Tkachuk trade and the installation of Maurice as coach.

That includes a 4-1-0 record from Feb. 6, 2023 on — and wins in four-straight games against the Lightning up until March 16, 2024.

“You watch those games a little bit, but it’s all about executing our game plan and sticking with what brings us success,” Sam Reinhart said.

“Whoever does that better is going to come out on top, so the more uncomfortable we can make them, the better. They’ve also got some of the best talent in the world, so if we can minimize their time and space, make them feel uncomfortable, we’re going to be better.”

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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