2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs
Aleksander Barkov and the Panthers will battle Victor Hedman and the Lightning in the first-ever Battle of Florida in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Welcome to the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, unlike any playoffs seen before. This year’s tournament is different than the 2020 tournament, as the realigned divisions, eliminated wild cards and conference structures, and the 56-game pandemic-shortened season produced a uniquely structured tournament. The atmosphere may not be the same as in previous years, but at least some fans will get to experience this year’s tournament in person. Despite all the adversity that the hockey world has faced this season, the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs will surely be a tournament to remember.

The Central Division contains one of the best first-round series in store this postseason: a meeting between the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning. Even though the Panthers finished above Tampa Bay in the standings, the matchup resembles David vs. Goliath. The Panthers, a hard-luck franchise known for failure and four-digit attendance figures takes on the defending Stanley Cup champions in the Lightning. This matchup could only be more intense if the two teams happened to be separated by only 228 miles. Oh, they are? Buckle up.

#2 Florida Panthers (37-14-5) vs. #3 Tampa Bay Lightning (36-17-3)

Recent History: Surprisingly, none. This is the first-ever Battle of Florida in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Let’s hope this is truly the beginning of an epic rivalry rather than just a one-off.

The Last Time Here: Convincing qualifier round loss to the Islanders aside, Florida’s last playoff trip was back in 2016. They shocked the hockey world by winning the Atlantic Division, only to be stunned in consecutive double-overtime losses in games five and six in a first-round series loss to the Isles. In fact, each of Florida’s last two playoff trips (2016 and 2012) have ended with a loss in double-overtime.

As for Tampa Bay’s most recent trip to the playoffs…

Some intern’s boss while reading this video’s headline: “What is that? (It just says) the Tampa Bay Lightning are the 2019-20 Stanley Cup Champions.” Intern: “It’s a statement of fact.” Boss: “Not even an exclamation point?” Intern: “This is more professional! It’s not like they discovered a cure for cancer.”

Season Series: All over the map. The winning team prevailed by three or more goals in half of the meetings between these two teams and six of eight meetings featured at least six goals combined, so expect a high-scoring series throughout. Florida holds the regular season advantage, going 5-2-1 against Tampa Bay. By winning each of their last two games of the season by a combined 9-1 margin over the Lightning, the Panthers secured home ice for the series. Seeing as Tampa’s tied for second with 21 home wins, those late-season wins could end up crucial to the Panthers’ hopes of success.

Florida Wins Because: They’re due and due big time. No team in the four major sports has a longer playoff series win drought than the Panthers, who haven’t won a playoff series since they won the Conference Finals in 1996. Florida has looked legit from the beginning, starting the season on a seven-game point streak and never slowing down. Their best defenseman, Aaron Ekbald, went down on a gruesome broken leg injury, but the team’s record did not reflect his absence. Newcomers Carter Verhaeghe, Anthony Duclair, and Patric Hornqvist have fit in seamlessly. A series win will pay off the hefty investment they’ve made in their core and legendary head coach Joel Quenneville.

For the Panthers to pull off this upset (and it would be an upset, despite the Panthers holding home ice), Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau will need to play well. The pair scored just three points each during their playoff appearance in 2016, but both have evolved from kids to faces of the franchise and two of the better players in the entire league. Huberdeau is 9th in the NHL in scoring since 2017-18 with a two-point lead over some player named Sidney Crosby, and Barkov is the heavy favorite to win the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward. Both are huge reasons that the team’s newcomers have fit in so easily.

The Panthers aren’t the same defensively without Ekblad, but they still do have a few solid players on their backend. MacKenzie Weegar, Ekblad’s usual partner, is underrated and has stepped up big-time since Ekblad’s injury. In fact, Weegar has been as good without Ekblad (58.93% Corsi, 59.06% xG in 438:06) as when the two share the ice (54.13% Corsi, 56.54% xG in 518:10). That’s not a knock on Ekblad, but a feather in Weegar’s cap to go along with his career-high 36 points this season. Not bad for a 7th-round pick.

Since Ekblad’s injury, Weegar has mostly played with Gustav Forsling. That duo has been just as dominant as Weegar-Ekblad (58.69% Corsi, 60.37% xG), though Forsling’s offensive utility does not match up to Ekblad’s. Trade deadline acquisition Brandon Montour and ex-Blue Jacket Markus Nutivaara are succeeding as a pair. Montour showed considerable potential early in his career while playing in Anaheim but struggled, as many players do, to produce results in Buffalo. In twelve games and about 150 minutes together, the duo is sitting above 60% in Corsi and xG. Keith Yandle has fought to extend his iron-man streak and produce at a consistent clip. The fact that either Radko Gudas and Anton Stralman will be scratched illustrates Florida’s gaudy defensive depth. The team’s back end was a hot mess last season, but they appear to have turned over a new leaf in 2021.

Tampa Bay Wins Because: They have the exact same roster as the one that won the Cup seven and a half months ago. Nikita Kucherov’s injury (more on him later) freed up the cap space for the Lightning to keep every key contributor from their title-winning performance in the bubble. They also added David Savard to the mix, who is comparable to Zach Bogosian on steroids.

Kucherov, Steven Stamkos (who barely played in last year’s Cup run), Brayden Point, Victor Hedman, and Andrei Vasilevskiy, among others, are not shut down easily. The Lightning are an incredibly deep team up front and on the back end. They possess a blend of talent and tenacity that’s almost impossible to match. Of all of the Stanley Cup winners of the last decade, Tampa is arguably the most likely to repeat, even more so than the Penguins teams that actually did.

There is more to say about Tampa, but it may not be necessary, as nearly everything I said in my playoff coverage from last year still applies. Simply put, Tampa Bay has some of the best talents in the game. Their forward core is oozing with depth. A left side on D of Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and Mikhail Sergachev cannot possibly be legal. Vasilevskiy is the favorite to win his second Vezina Trophy. It’s unfair how good Tampa Bay is, but fortunately, the salary cap will force them to lose pieces this summer. The team’s current roster will not be around forever, but at the moment, all that the fans in Tampa Bay can see is another golden opportunity for a title run.

Players to Watch:

FLA: Sergei Bobrovsky (or whoever’s in the net) – When the Panthers inked Bobrovsky to a massive 7-year, $70 million contract, they hoped he would lead them in pressure moments. However, Bobrovsky has struggled massively since arriving in Sunrise last fall, posting a mediocre .902 SV% in 81 games as a Panther, the same mark he has averaged in his playoff career to this point. The team has cheaper options available in rookie Spencer Knight and excellent journeyman Chris Driedger, though neither has played in a single NHL playoff game. Despite their inexperience, the margin for error against Tampa Bay is so thin that Bobrovsky might not last long if he struggles early. Quenneville has had previous success trusting an unproven youngster over an experienced veteran, so swapping out a struggling Bobrovsky is always possible.

TB: Nikita Kucherov – a winger who hasn’t played a hockey game since September 28, 2020, when the Lightning won the Cup. Kucherov underwent hip surgery on December 23, 2020, and hasn’t played since. His absence from the regular season left his $9.5 million salary-cap hit on Long Term Injured Reserve, allowing GM Julien BriseBois to kick the Bolts’ cap troubles down the road. This tournament is Tampa’s last shot with their current group before they are forced to lose pieces, but having Kucherov back, even if he’s not quite in MVP form, gives Tampa a better chance at competing for the Cup.

The Pick: No matter the outcome, this season has been a success for the Panthers. Recent teams, like the 2019 Hurricanes and 2020 Canucks, demonstrated that “out of nowhere” teams don’t have to lose in Round One. The Hurricanes even beat the defending Stanley Cup champions in the first round of the 2019 playoffs. But with Ekblad out for the series (and, in all likelihood, the majority of the playoffs), Florida cannot shut down Tampa’s big guns long enough, especially once Kucherov returns. Tampa Bay in 6.

Oddly Specific Prediction: This is an idea I also borrow from one of the best hockey writers, The Athletic’s Sean McIndoe (aka Down Goes Brown). The idea is very self-explanatory: make a very specific and semi-random prediction for each series. The idea is “stolen”; the predictions themselves are not. In this series, there will be at least two goals scored with a goalie exchanged for an extra attacker (not counting delayed penalty sequences).

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All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5, Score and Venue Adjusted unless otherwise stated and are via Natural Stat Trick