Lightning vs. Panthers preview: 5 questions for ‘Battle of Florida’

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PHT previews each Second Round playoff series with five questions. In this post, we explore “The Battle of Florida” between the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning.

FLORIDA PANTHERS v. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

Game 1 – May 17: Lightning at Panthers, 7 p.m. ET (TNT, Sportsnet, CBC, TVA Sports)
Game 2 – May 19: Lightning at Panthers, 7 p.m. ET (TNT, Sportsnet, CBC, TVA Sports)
Game 3 – May 22: Panthers at Lightning, 1:30 p.m. ET (ESPN, Sportsnet, TVA Sports)
Game 4 – May 23: Panthers at Lightning, 7 p.m. ET (TNT, Sportsnet, CBC, TVA Sports)
*Game 5 – May 25: Lightning at Panthers, TBD
*Game 6 – May 27: Panthers at Lightning, TBD
*Game 7 – May 29: Lightning at Panthers, TBD

* if necessary
TBD – To Be Determined

1. How healthy are Point, Kucherov, Verhaeghe?

We’re only through one race in the marathon that is the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Even so, there are already injuries that could swing a series between two dominant teams in the Panthers and Lightning.

Most pressingly, Brayden Point left the Lightning’s Game 7 win over the Maple Leafs, and failed in his attempt to return.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper deemed Brayden Point “highly doubtful” for Game 1 against the Panthers. Beyond that, there’s the nebulous day-to-day label. Considering how Point reacted to tweaking whatever it is that he injured, his larger availability is an open question.

Speaking of open questions, there are injuries teams can’t hide. Then there are ones we mainly speculate about.

For example: Darren Dreger speculated that Nikita Kucherov‘s been “dealing with something.”

Considering his series-clinching overtime goal and an assist, you could be forgiven for assuming that Carter Verhaeghe is totally healthy. That said, it’s worth noting that Verhaeghe was a game-time decision for Game 6.

[NHL Power Rankings: Top playoff storylines for the Second Round]

There’s an old sports adage to play hurt, but not injured. During the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, players often do both.

While that’s some mix of admirable and reckless, it creates an invisible guessing game. As much as hot-takers want to question the toughness of a player, you’re only so sure who’s even playing at full-strength.

So, we may see all of Kucherov, Point, and Verhaeghe during this Lightning – Panthers series. That doesn’t mean every player will be at 100%.

(Also, can we get Aaron Ekblad some health luck? Sheesh.)

2. What’s a better advantage: fresher legs or experienced hands?

Broadly speaking, Panthers – Lightning is a series about a fresher, generally younger team vs. a battle-tested-but-also-battered repeat defending champion.

Since their championship run began in 2019-20, the Lightning have played 55 playoff games. The next two teams (Islanders, 41 playoff games played; Golden Knights, 39) didn’t even make the playoffs this year. Meanwhile, the Panthers have played 16 playoff games, and just won their first playoff series in 26 years.

(It’s amusing, really, that the Lightning added Corey Perry to their roster, as he’s topped all skaters with 56 playoff games played since 2019-20.)

One might be tempted to only look at the Lightning since they were shockingly swept by Columbus, but much of this core accrued grueling playoff minutes even before this run. Consider the career playoff games played (and ages) for key Lightning players:

  • Victor Hedman, 31 years old: 139 playoff games played.

  • Nikita Kucherov, 28: 120.

  • Steven Stamkos, 32: 101.

  • Brayden Point’s relatively young at 26, yet he’s already played 74. Of course, there’s the injury factor.

Then you look at the Panthers, and you’ll notice a younger core. Between ages 25 and 26, you have Aleksander Barkov, Carter Verhaeghe, Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart, and on. Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar are both 28. None of those players absorbed the battle scars of lengthy playoff skirmishes.

[2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs schedule, TV information]

Even Florida’s veterans haven’t been through playoff rigors as much lately. On one hand, Claude Giroux, 34, has played 91 playoff games. On the other, his Flyers generally rotated seasons where they made the playoffs one season, then missed it the other since 2012-13. He’s only endured one semi-lengthy playoff run recently (16 playoff GP in 2019-20).

Ultimately, it remains to be seen if a Lightning enjoy that advantage in experience, or if all of those experiences slow them down against the speedy, relentless Panthers. For what it’s worth, a cagey, experienced, less-imposing Capitals team managed to slow the Panthers far more than expected in the First Round:

3. How much of an edge will Vasilevskiy have over Bobrovsky?

That fatigue discussion hovers at least a bit, in my mind, over a battle that many (understandably) believe the Lightning will win handily.

How much better should we expect Andrei Vasilevskiy to be compared to Sergei Bobrovsky (or, if things get ugly again, Bob and Spencer Knight)?

For some time, I’ve wondered if the Lightning would eventually lean too much on Andrei Vasilevskiy. Frankly, it’s impressive that the answer is “not yet.”

Going back to playoff games played during the Lightning three-peat push, Andrei Vasilevskiy’s 55 games played easily leads all goalies, with Semyon Varlamov (34) and Carey Price (32) the only other netminders above 30.

It’s not as though the Bolts rested up their No. 1 goalie with the playoffs in mind, either. In that same frame (since 2019-20), Vasilevskiy played 157 regular-season games, second-only to overworked Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck (169).

[Coaching news: Isles name Lambert head coach; Golden Knights fire DeBoer]

Of course, it helps that Vasilevskiy is somehow just 27. It’s also noteworthy that, amid ups and downs, 33-year-old Bobrovsky played 135 regular-season games during that span.

Still, Vasilevskiy’s played more playoff games (55) during these past three runs than Bob’s played in his career (47).

On paper, Vasilevskiy carries a steep advantage over Bobrovsky, even noting that Bob’s been good enough for Florida through much of 2021-22. That’s a lot of playoff hockey, even for a 27-year-old, and the Lightning increasingly lean on low margins of victory.

The Lightning may not want to rely on their goaltending advantage over the Panthers too much.

4. Can the Panthers afford to play nasty against the Lightning?

Tampa Bay Lightning v Florida Panthers
(Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

Yes, there’s an undercurrent of comedy to the title “Battle of Florida.” Some of it comes down to imagery about Cats.

A lot of it comes down to Florida leaping from mediocre to very good faster than a panther can pounce.

But these teams really have been nasty with each other at times. Memorably, last year’s series began with a number of dirty/borderline hits, including one that netted a Sam Bennett suspension.

In the latest Lightning – Panthers series, Florida head coach Andrew Brunette may need to thread a delicate needle.

On one hand, you want this team to be relentless. Constantly putting pressure on opponents can lead to the sort of mistakes that can give you rush opportunities, and then things can snowball from there.

On the other hand, go overboard, and you risk suspensions and penalties.

[More: What’s next for the Maple Leafs?]

Really, the Panthers must be relieved that they beat the Capitals despite going 0-for-18 on the power play. They were the only team without a PPG in the First Round. Meanwhile, the Lightning went 7-for-33(!) in their series.

Of course, small sample sizes can lead you to get carried away. During the regular season, the Panthers and Lightning both boasted brilliant power-play units.

Still, it would probably be wise for the Panthers to find a happy medium between functional aggression and last postseason, when they lost their minds at times against the Lightning.

5. Who will win this Lightning – Panthers Series?

Lightning in six games

While each team is versatile, I see the styles push this way. The Panthers want to create such a quantity of chances, preferably off the rush, that they overwhelm the Lightning. Florida does, at times, give up high-danger chances if they can’t limit an opponent’s time in the attacking zone.

The Lightning likely aim to pull off a super-charged version of what Washington sometimes achieved. Pressure Florida’s defense to create sloppier exits, and clog up the neutral zone to limit transition opportunities when the forecheck can’t do the trick. On offense, the Lightning will hope to create enough high-danger chances (ideally gaining some cycle-heavy shifts) to make the difference.

That’s where the fatigue question gives me pause. Tampa Bay will want to slow things down, and they might get their way. Yet, if Florida can make this a sprint, the Bolts could be in real trouble.

My guess is that the Lightning are crafty and versatile enough to squeeze out a series win against the Panthers. Greedily, I wouldn’t hate to see the Panthers open things up, though. When they’re going, they’re a lot of fun to watch.

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Lightning vs. Panthers preview: 5 questions for ‘Battle of Florida’ originally appeared on NBCSports.com