SUNRISE, Fla. – The next chapter of the “Battle for Florida” will get underway when the Panthers and Lightning kick off their second-round series at FLA Live Arena on Tuesday.
Since the 2019-20 season, the Sunshine State foes have faced off 22 times.
“We’re in a great position right now,” Panthers interim head coach Andrew Brunette said of the series. “We have a great opportunity to do something special. With our group it’s all about fun, and this is a fun time of year to be playing. I feel joy and an opportunity to really have some fun.”
If the series is anything like what we saw last season, fans will be in for a treat once again.
After having to wait more than two decades for a postseason showdown between the NHL’s Sunshine State squads, the Round 1 series between the Panthers and Lightning last season exceeded expectations as the rugged rivals combined for 41 goals and 196 penalty minutes.
And even though the Lightning won the series in six games en route to claiming their second consecutive Stanley Cup, the Panthers gained plenty of experience and confidence during the matchup that helped fuel the team’s historic Presidents’ Trophy-winning campaign in 2021-22.
“Last year we created kind of a little rivalry in Florida,” Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau said with a grin. “We’re excited. It’s going to be a big challenge for us. We’re excited for tonight.”
Looking back at the series – a battle in which more than a dozen current Panthers took the ice for at least one game in – Huberdeau said one of the biggest lessons the team learned was to not let the increased levels of emotions and physicality lead players into taking more penalties.
Although the Lightning led 24-17 in goals in the series, eight of them came on the power play.
“I thought last year we played well,” Huberdeau said. “We had a good series. I think just being disciplined. They have a really good power play. Last year they were almost 50% against us. That can’t happen. We know it. We know what we can do, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Slaying a metaphorical dragon by winning their first playoff series since 1996, the Panthers enter Round 2 riding high after taking down the Capitals in six games in Round 1. Eighteen different players had a one point against Washington, but Carter Verhaeghe stole the show.
Setting a franchise record for goals (6) and points (12) in a single postseason series, Verhaeghe scored the game-winning goals in Games 4, 5 and 6. In Games 4 and 6, those winners came in overtime, while in Game 5 he set a club playoff record with five points (two goals, three assists).
“He’s a big part of our identity and who we are,” Brunette said of Verhaeghe, who helped the Lightning win the Stanley Cup in 2020 before joining the Panthers as a free agent. “He’s just relentless, he’s competitive, and he brings pace. He’s done all those things since he got here.”
For the Lightning, it was the usual suspects that led the charge in Round 1. Eliminating the Maple Leafs in seven games, Nikita Kucherov tallied a team-high eight points (two goals, six assists), while Victor Hedman (seven points) and Steven Stamkos (four points) also chipped in.
But in Game 7, it was deadline acquisition Nick Paul’s two goals that made the difference in a 2-1 win over Toronto. With Brayden Point’s status up in the air after he suffered an injury during that game, Paul is a player to keep an eye on as a potential X-factor for Tampa Bay in Round 2.
“We’ve been working the whole season to prepare us for these games,” said Panthers rookie forward Anton Lundell, who had five points (two goals, three assists) against the Lightning during the regular season. “Now the fun is here, and we’re just trying to enjoy every game.”
Setting up to be an epic battle between the pipes, Sergei Bobrovsky will start for the Panthers, while Andre Vasilevskiy will get the nod for the Lightning. Both former winners of the Vezina Trophy, the two goaltenders finished tied for first during the regular season with 39 wins each.
In Round 1, Bobrovsky posted a .906 save percentage, which edged Vasilevskiy’s .897.
“When he sees the puck, that’s when he’s at his best,” Huberdeau said of Vasilevskiy. “When you have that open net you think it’s going to be easy, but he’s always going to be there. He’s a big goalie. We’ve got to get traffic, go in front of him. That’s how you’re going to beat him.”
Posting a 2-1-1 record against the Lightning during the regular season, the Panthers are confident that their recent success, coupled with the lessons they learned during last year’s inaugural intrastate playoff battle, will help them dethrone the back-to-back Cup champions.
Getting more comfortable with each game, the Cats know their best hockey is ahead of them.
For the rest of the NHL, and especially the Lightning, that’s a scary thought.
“I think it’s part of the trials and tribulations of playing playoff hockey,” Brunette said. “Even in parts of the first series, we’re still growing as a group, we’re still building. Emotions, at times, especially against these guys last year, got a little wound up.
“I think we learned during that last series that we have to control our emotions. It’s going to be a rollercoaster ride. We can talk about it until we’re blue in the face, but you’ve got to go through it to understand it. I think we’re building towards that.”
Carter Verhaeghe — Aleksander Barkov – Claude Giroux
Jonathan Huberdeau — Sam Bennett – Anthony Duclair
Noel Acciari — Anton Lundell – Sam Reinhart
Ryan Lomberg — Eetu Luostarinen — Patric Hornqvist
Ben Chiarot — Aaron Ekblad
Gustav Forsling — MacKenzie Weegar
Brandon Montour — Radko Gudas
Panthers: Carter Verhaeghe has 12 points (six goals, six assists) over his last six games. … Aleksander Barkov has six points (two goals, four assists) over his last six games. … Claude Giroux has seven points (three goals, four assists) over his last six games.
Lightning: Nikita Kucherov has eight points (two goals, six assists) over his last seven games. … Victor Hedman has seven points (two goals, five assists) over his last seven games. … Ross Colton has five points (three goals, two assists) over his last seven games.
“It’s great, entertaining hockey. It’s got a little bit of everything. It’s got some great goaltending, some really good offensive play, it’s got some physicality and a little nastiness to it. It’s a fun hockey game when you’re sitting there watching from behind the bench. I think the fans really appreciate it and are looking forward to another fun series.” – Panthers interim head coach Andrew Brunette on facing the Lightning in Round 2.
“Florida is a hell of a team. We’ve watched them all year. We’ve had some amazing battles with them. I think people, especially in Florida, have been begging for the two teams to be contenders and go at it. I think last year, many people said that might have been the series of the playoffs. They’ve retooled their team and brought some big names in there and it should be a ton of fun.” – Lightning head coach Jon Cooper on facing the Panthers in Round 2.
– Florida’s 20 five-on-five goals in Round 1 led all NHL teams.
– The Panthers have won three of their last four home playoff games.
– Aleksander Barkov’s 20 career playoff points are the most in Panthers history.
– Aaron Ekblad led Florida with 23:05 of average ice time per game in Round 1.
– Sergei Bobrovsky posted a .928 even-strength save percentage in Round 1.
– Aleksander Barkov Named Finalist for the 2021-22 Frank J. Selke Trophy
– NOTEBOOK: Preparation, payback and playoff beards
– NOTEBOOK: Panthers ready for ‘exciting challenge’ of facing Lightning
– 5 TAKEAWAYS: Panthers ‘finally rewarded,’ move on to Round 2 of playoffs
– Territory Talk: The legend of Swagu
When: Tuesday, May 17 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: FLA Live Arena – Sunrise, FL
TV & Streaming: TNT, Sportsnet, CBC, TVA Sports
Radio: 560 WQAM (Dade/Broward); 640 WMEN (Palm Beach); 100.3 WCTH (Florida Keys); SiriusXM NHL Network Channel 91 / App & Streaming 932
– Support the Florida Panthers Foundation and try to win big with the 50/50 Raffle!
– It’s a Red Alert in South Florida! All fans are encouraged to wear red to tonight’s game.
– Fans that attend tonight’s game will receive a rally towel presented by CITY Furniture.