Tampa Bay Lightning (36-17-3, 75pts) vs. Florida Panthers (37-14-5 79pts)
This all Florida battle pits two very talented teams against each other. The Panthers won the season series 5-3 (with one of those wins in overtime), but blitzed the Lightning the last two games of the season, outscoring them by a combined 9-1.
The defending Cup champs, the Tampa Bay Lightning, look to repeat, though they come in as the lower seed to the Panthers. While Tampa finished with a very respectable 75 points, they did so with their captain, Steven Stamkos, missing 18 games and Nikita Kucheroc missing the entire season. It’s fairly likely that with these two players they would have won their division, and probably the President’s trophy, so take their lower seeding with a grain of salt. Both of these players are slated to return for Game 1. While it remains to be seen whether Kucherov can get into midseason form immediately, or if Stamkos can finally stay healthy – these are two world-class players that would transform any team, regardless of any rust. On top of that, the Lightning return key pieces from last year’s run, such as Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, Victor Hedman, and Andrei Vasilevskiy. Point led the team in scoring with 23 goals and 48 points in 56 games, while Vasilevskiy put up another sensational season. The combination of offensive firepower, exceptional goaltending, and an all-world defenseman in Victor Hedman will make Tampa a very tough team to eliminate.
Turning to Florida, I think it came as little surprise to anyone that after a season under his belt Joel Quenneville transformed the team into a contender. Coach Q just seems to do this wherever he goes, especially when he has talented players like Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. Both players put up well over a point per game, with Huberdeau scoring 20 goals and 61 points in 55 games, and Barkov scoring 26 goals and 58 points in only 50 games. While the production drops off after that, the Panthers do have seasoned veterans like Patric Hornqvist and Noel Acciari that give them a wealth of playoff experience.
The two question marks for Florida though are defense and goaltending. Their defense is hurt by the loss of Aaron Ekblad who is done for the season. Goaltending, they do have Sergei Bobrovsky, who no doubt has the talent to be a Vezina Trophy candidate, but had a rather underwhelming season (though better than last year), with only a .906 save percentage and 2.91 GAA. Any weakness in defense and goaltending will be exploited by Tampa Bay.
While the Panthers are definitely a good team, with their playoff inexperience and key injury to Ekblad, coupled with the return of Stamkos and Kucherov, my feeling is that this will be a short series. I honestly think Tampa will sweep, but to be nice let’s say the Lightning in 5.
Just please no rats this time.