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2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 2 Preview: Panthers vs. Lightning

Stanley Cup Playoffs

The Lightning got the better of the Panther’s to kick off their Cup run last year. But can the more experienced, deeper Panthers flip the script this time? (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)

The Lightning got the better of the Panther’s to kick off their Cup run last year. But can the more experienced, deeper Panthers flip the script this time? (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)

2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 2 Preview: Panthers vs. Lightning

Even though the Florida Panthers were actually the higher seed in last year’s first round All-Florida clash (the first of its kind in the playoffs), there was no doubting who the favorite was. The Tampa Bay Lightning entered that series as the defending Stanley Cup champions with gobs of playoff experience, plus better depth and goaltending than Florida. Oh, and the Panthers didn’t have Aaron Ekblad for that entire series, either. Sure enough, the Lightning held serve in that series. They were knocked off-balance a couple of times by Florida’s deadly offense, sure. But they were ultimately able to solve Florida’s three-headed monster in net to advance in six.

But even though neither team’s identity or core has changed that much since last year’s showdown, the feeling surrounding this year’s series is a lot different. Panthers-Lightning 2.0 is nothing short of a clash of the titans. Two of the league’s deadliest teams going toe-to-toe with a spot in the Eastern Conference Final on the line. The Lightning may be two-time defending champions now. But the Panthers are much deeper upfront and more well-rounded this year than last. It’s all setting up for an epic second-round series; one that could go down in NHL lore if it lives up to the hype.

Florida Panthers (58-18-8, No. 1 Atlantic) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (51-23-8, No. 3 Atlantic)

Recent History: As mentioned above, last year marked the first ever Panthers-Lightning playoff showdown. Tampa Bay took Games 1 and 2 on the road, with the Panthers switching from Sergei Bobrovsky to Chris Driedger in net afterwards. Florida rallied to take Game 3 in OT, but the Lightning answered back in Game 4. Rookie Spencer Knight gave the Panthers a dead-cat-bounce win in Game 5. But Brayden Point led the charge for a Tampa Bay team that simply overpowered Florida in Game 6 to take the series.

Season Series: Part of the reason why a playoff matchup between these two teams is so highly anticipated is their regular season series this year. Both teams won twice, with each team putting up at least eight goals in a game. Tampa Bay won the lone game between the clubs after New Year’s 8-4 on April 24. It’s worth noting both teams still had something to play for in that late season contest (seeding for Tampa Bay, the President’s Trophy for Florida).

The Last Time Here: The good news for Panthers is that they did win their most recent second round series. In fact, they’ve never lost in the second round before. The bad news is that’s because they’ve only been to this juncture once; 1996, when they knocked off the East’s No. 1 seeded Philadelphia Flyers in six games. Not only does 2022 mark Florida’s first series win since beating Pittsburgh in that ensuing Eastern Conference Final trip, this was the first time since 2012 the Panthers even played in a game with the opportunity to advance in the playoffs if they won it. Win it they did in Game 6 against the Capitals to advance.

Meanwhile, Tampa Bay faced a Carolina team in the second round last year not too dissimilar to Florida. That Hurricanes team wasn’t as potent offensively. But they were a talented, fairly young team just starting to establish themselves as a regular playoff contender hungry to knock off Goliath. Instead, the Lightning squashed them like a bug in five games. Carolina managed just two combined goals in the three games at Raleigh in the series. The Lightning only managed more than two goals once in that series, but it didn’t matter.

The Road Thus Far: Both teams went through the ringer in Round 1, leaving several near-miss moments to haunt their opponents. It was especially surprising to see Florida meet as much resistance as they did from a Capitals team expected to be severely outgunned by the Panthers; especially after losing Tom Wilson to injury in Game 1. Washington did a good job in the neutral zone, limiting Florida’s deadly transition game as well as possible early in the series. But Florida found new life after snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in Game 4 to avoid going down 3-1. The Panthers managed to start scoring more goals off the cycle and around the front of the net. They showed some impressive resiliency by winning the last three games of the six-game series in comeback fashion.

Tampa Bay has now won nine consecutive playoff series, but No. 9 was the closest the Lightning have come to elimination. The Lightning struggled at times to contain Toronto’s strong offense, including blowing 2-0 leads in Games 5 and 6. Tampa Bay was less than ten minutes away from being eliminated on their home ice in Game 6, in fact. But what the Lightning do so well is when the other team cracks the door open, and they eventually will over the course of a best-of-seven series, they kick it down. The Lightning capitalized on a late 5-on-3 to tie Game 6. They won it on an odd-man rush resulting from a fluke fall from Auston Matthews in the neutral zone. Oh, and afterwards, they also won a Game 7 on the road, playing arguably their best defensive game of the series at 5-on-5.

Florida Wins Because: They simply can’t be stopped offensively. Sure, it looked like the Capitals may have found a successful formula at times in Round 1. But it’s one thing to be able to shut the Panthers down for a game, it’s almost impossible to contain them enough over a playoff series to win. Florida not only has the high-end talent to compete with the Lightning (or any team). But the sheer amount of strong scoring forwards it has can overwhelm even a defense as deep as Tampa Bay’s.

While both teams are largely the same as last season, Florida has made the most significant addition on either side by bringing in Claude Giroux, who even at 34 remains one of the league’s best playmakers. Though he’s only been a Panther for about two months, he’s a great embodiment of this Panthers team; highly skilled with something to prove in the playoffs. Giroux, who had just one goal in his last 28 playoff games across three playoff trips with the Flyers, finished second on the Panthers with seven points in Round 1. Giroux got better as the series progressed as well. He scored a critical insurance marker late in Game 5. Then he recorded a primary point (1 goal, 2 primary assists) on each of Florida’s three third period and OT goals in Game 6 to pull off the comeback.

Other than Giroux, Aleksander Barkov, and Carter Verhaeghe, Florida didn’t have any standout performances offensively against Washington. Even Barkov’s six points felt like they largely went under the radar. And Verhaeghe didn’t really get going until his OT winner in Game 4, exploding for seven points in the next two games. There are two ways you can look at that. The glass half full option is that if the Panthers could win a series without playing up to their full offensive potential (and still average over three goals a game in doing so), imagine what they’ll look like if/when they return to that level. And given just how dominant the Panthers were in the regular season, it’s easy to like the odds of that happening to at least some extent.

We’re not just talking about an offense that was the best in the league; the Panthers finished this season averaging 4.11 goals per game, the highest total since the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins. Two other teams (Colorado and Detroit) finished the 95-96 season with over 3.95 goals per game. In 2021-22, no other team averaged more than 3.8 goals per game. When discussing the best offenses in the game, we’re usually talking about a couple of perfectly complementary elite talents. For example, the Lightning thrive off the symbiotic relationship between Nikita Kucherov, a pure sniper, and Brayden Point, a dazzling playmaker. Same with the Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on the Toronto team the Lightning bested in Round 1. Colorado’s vaunted top line is a classic power forward-playmaker-sniper combination in Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, and Mikko Rantanen.

Florida certainly isn’t lacking for high-end talent; they of course have the reigning Selke Trophy winner in Barkov and this season’s co-Art Ross runner-up in Jonathan Huberdeau. But both players (and Giroux) are actually better suited as playmakers. Both are certainly capable goal scorers, and Barkov is noticeably more of a shoot-first player than the other two. All three players rank inside the league’s top 20 or so in primary shot assists per 60. But Barkov is better than a tick above league average in shots per 60.

That explains why Florida has long separated Barkov and Huberdeau, and maybe also explains Huberdeau’s quiet Round 1. He and Giroux’s pass-first skill sets seem a bit redundant. Maybe the Panthers would be better off moving one to the top or using one to create the best playoff third-line since Pittsburgh’s HBK trio. Then again, Huberdeau and Giroux played about half of their 5-on-5 minutes post trade deadline together, and Huberdeau scored at a 132-point pace over those 18 games. It’s a good problem for head coach Andrew Brunette to have.

Florida presents a much different challenge than Toronto for Tampa Bay. Toronto thrived when being in control and playing at their pace. Meanwhile, the Panthers are simply all gas, no breaks. Florida averages nearly one more controlled entry per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 than any other team in the NHL; a massive disparity over the course of an 82-game season. They’ll force Tampa’s defense to make quick, split second decisions and will almost always punish the Lightning when they make the wrong choice.

Brayden Point’s potential absence due to the injury he suffered in Game 7 against Toronto could make life easier for the Mackenzie Weegar-Aaron Ekblad pairing. It’s easily Florida’s best, and the decidedly mediocre defensively Panthers will need their best to advance. Sergei Bobrovsky showed flashes of his past playoff faux pas against Washington. But he also did have moments where he legitimately looked like a $10 million goalie. Ensuring he’s consistently on his A-game is vital for Florida. Their odds with a still unproven Spencer Knight who hasn’t played in about three weeks would not be very good.

Tampa Bay Wins Because: They know how to better than anyone. It made a difference, if not the difference against Toronto. And it could very well make the difference against a Panthers team that hasn’t been to this stage in a long, long time. There’s simply no fear of failure in the Lightning, and that is a dangerous trait to have.

The Lightning are also a team full of dangerous players. However, one of them may not be a part of this series, at least at first. Brayden Point torched the Panthers last year, including a dazzling goal in the series clinching Game 6. While he wasn’t at his sharpest in the Toronto series, Point did score the OT winner in Game 6; only to suffer a scary looking leg injury from falling awkwardly into the boards in the first period. Point tried to return for one brief second period shift, never to play again in Game 7. Jon Cooper called him “highly doubtful” for Game 1. Point will undoubtedly try to make a comeback at some point. But who knows whether he’ll be able to do so, and how effective he’ll be if he can.

Point’s absence could be significant enough to change Tampa Bay’s game plan compared to last year’s meeting. The Lightning were content to play run-and-gun hockey with the Panthers last year, correctly figuring they have enough firepower to overcome them. But with Florida even deadlier this season and the Lightning undoubtedly a worse team this year than last if they’re without Point, Tampa Bay could try to turn this into a more physical series.

That’s a style the Lightning are plenty comfortable with. No team threw more hits in Round 1 than the Lightning, who ranked fifth in hits per 60 minutes. Even going back to the regular season, the Lightning as a team were the second best team in the NHL at recovering the puck when they dump it in. The Lightning rely heavily on Point, Nikita Kucherov, and Steven Stamkos for their controlled entries, with Point’s injury putting more pressure on the latter two to be at their best.

No one player can replace Point, but the Lightning have the depth to try. Nine Tampa Bay players scored at least four points in the first round, with only Carolina having more. By expected goals percentage, Tampa Bay’s top regular forwards in Round 1 were Brandon Hagel, Alex Killorn, Nick Paul, Ross Colton, Pat Maroon, and Ondrej Palat. Most of those players delivered key goals at various points throughout the series as well. It’s not hard to see a world where Tampa Bay’s depth gives a not stellar Florida defense fits.

But this series will probably come down to Tampa Bay’s ability to keep Florida off the board. When it comes to special teams, the Lightning might actually be feeling pretty good about themselves. Tampa Bay allowed just 6.17 expected goals per 60 while shorthanded in Round 1, the fourth best mark in the league. Their 85.7% penalty kill was sixth best, and Anthony Cirelli added a massive short-handed marker in Game 6 as well. That stands in stark contrast to a Florida power-play that was the only one to go oh-for-the-first-round, a stunning feat considering their strong regular season mark. It’s not like they were goalied, either; only Nashville generated fewer expected goals for per 60 minutes on the PP than Florida. If the Lightning can hold serve, it would be huge for their chances.

Other than that, the Lightning will be hoping for more great hockey from Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy. The former led Tampa’s defense in expected goals percentage and finished just outside the top ten among defensemen by Corey Sznajder’s Game Score metric, which uses shots, passes, zone entries, and zone exits to create an overall snapshot of a player’s performance. Sznajder’s tracking only includes Games 1-5 of the series, so Hedman may very well deserve to be higher. Vasilevskiy delivered another tremendous performance in an elimination game, even if his five straight series clinching shutout streak was snapped.

Ryan McDonagh also had a very strong series for the Lightning, whose gap between their stellar left side and mediocre right side on defense was very apparent in Round 1. Other than the big three, only Zach Bogosian finished above 50% in expected goals share among Lightning blue-liners. Tampa’s right side will need to hold is own against Florida. Unlike with Toronto, who was much weaker at left wing compared to center or right wing, defending Carter Verhaeghe and Jonathan Huberdeau will be no easy task. It’ll be interesting to see how Jon Cooper handles things; he’s proven to be one of the league’s best coaches, and this matchup will test that mettle.

The Pick: Defending a championship is always difficult; not just because it’s hard to win in the first place, but because of the extra mileage from playing deep into the summer. The Lightning had to play deeper into last summer than any other Cup champion. At least the 2020 Bolts had a five-month rest preceding their two-month Cup run. No team played more hockey in 2021 than the Lightning, who went nearly seven months before their first significant stoppage. Training camp started just two months later. Eight months of mostly continuous hockey later, here they are, still standing.

It’s an impressive feat, but how long can it last? It’s not like the Lightning had never been tested before nearly bowing out to Toronto in Round 1. They were able to hold off one upstart team hungry for playoff success. Doing it again will be much tougher, however, especially against a Panthers team that is simply exhausting to play against. Florida wasn’t at its best in Round 1, and while flipping that switch is much easier said than done during the middle of the playoffs, this may just be the right opportunity for them to do it.

A fully healthy, rested Lightning team (even one as well rested if they’d dispatched Toronto in less than seven games) would have a good shot at overcoming Florida. I just don’t think the Lightning team that will be playing in this series have enough in the tank to do so. Panthers in 5.

Oddly Specific Prediction: This is an idea I always 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. Florida’s two biggest disappointments in Round 1 were probably their power-play and Jonathan Huberdeau. So in this series, the winning goal will be scored by Huberdeau on the man-advantage.

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All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5 unless otherwise stated and via Natural Stat Trick and Corey Sznajder’s All Three Zones (subscribe to his Patreon here)

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