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NHL betting: Florida Panthers favored to end Tampa Bay Lightning's three-peat quest

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The quest for the Stanley Cup is down to just eight teams as the second round of the NHL playoffs gets underway on Tuesday. Arguably the most intriguing series of the four on tap is the battle of Florida-based teams in the Eastern Conference. The Tampa Bay Lightning are back-to-back defending champions, but they enter the second round series as underdogs against their in-state rival Florida Panthers.

The Lightning are underdogs for a second straight series after pulling off the small upset when they edged the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 7 on Saturday. The Panthers are the current favorites to win the Eastern Conference and they finished the regular season as the best team in the NHL. The Panthers are -145 favorites to eliminate the Lightning, but the reigning back-to-back champions will surely be a popular underdog bet in Round 2. Tampa Bay eliminated Florida last year en route to winning the Stanley Cup, will the Panthers exact revenge this year?

How these teams got here

As mentioned above, the Florida Panthers were the NHL's best team during the regular season, finishing with 122 points. That was three points better than the second place Colorado Avalanche and earned them the Presidents Trophy. Florida was the best team in the league in both shot generation and finishing, leading hockey in expected goals and goals scored. They finished the regular season with the second best expected goal rate in the league, meaning their dominant results certainly checked out under the hood.

For the Lightning, they were solid as well but not nearly as dominant. Their 110 points ranked eighth in the league, fifth in the conference and third in the division. The Lightning ranked eighth in the league in expected goal rate, and ranked in the top-third of the league in both expected goals scored and allowed. Certainly, Tampa Bay had a very good season but there's no denying the Panthers were the better team.

In the first round, the Panthers took care of Washington in six games in a series that failed to impress many but also showed what the Panthers were capable of. The series turned in Game 5 when Florida erased a 3-0 Washington lead and stormed back to win the game at home. Carter Verhaeghe had five points in that game and then scored the series clinching overtime goal in Game 6, capping a tremendous series for the Panthers' winger. He's currently second in the league in playoff scoring behind only Connor McDavid.

The Panthers won the series, but not by the margin many had expected prior to Round 1. Florida needed to win two overtime games to go along with their tremendous comeback in Game 5 to eliminate the Capitals. However, that's playoff hockey for you. It's never easy and each game is close. The Panthers had just a 51.2% expected-goal rate in the series when you adjust for score effects according to Natural Stat Trick, a solid but unspectacular number when you consider the expectations.

TAMPA, FL - MAY 26: Brayden Point #21 of the Tampa Bay Lightning shakes hands with the Florida Panthers after the series win in Game Six of the First Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on May 26, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)
After losing to Tampa Bay in the NHL playoffs last year, the Florida Panthers are favored to get revenge this year. (Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images)

On the other side, the Tampa Bay Lightning faced an even stiffer challenge from the Toronto Maple Leafs en route to punching their ticket to round two. After falling behind in the series three games to two and allowing 20 Toronto goals in the first five games of the series, the Lightning rebounded to win the last two games and held Toronto to just four goals in the process.

The series between the Lightning and the Leafs was the tightest first round series from an expected goal point of view, as the Lightning held the slightest 13.22 to 13.04 advantage in terms of expected goals at 5-on-5. It culminated with a 2-1 Game 7 victory on the road for Tampa Bay, powered by two goals from Nick Paul and another superb performance from Andrei Vasilevskiy between the pipes in an elimination game.

What to watch for in the series

The storylines are there for a tremendous series. We have the new kids on the block with the Panthers, looking to parlay their tremendous season into playoff success. They are coming off their first series win since 1996. They're going up against the older, more experienced group who has all of the playoff experience and success you could ask for as two-time defending champions. They're in-state rivals and the hockey should be tremendous. It's the closest second-round series from a betting perspective.

The most intriguing storyline for me in this series will be the goaltending. During Florida's tremendous season, not a lot of credit has been given to Sergei Bobrovsky. His numbers (.913 save percentage during regular season, .906 in Round 1) are solid, but certainly not anything that will get anyone talking about them. When you discuss Bobrovsky in relation to the Panthers, you'll often hear people say "he's been good enough," which is true, but is that enough in the playoffs?

Bobrovsky has the credentials to make one a believer. The two-time Vezina winning goaltender got his massive contract from the Panthers for a reason. However, it's safe to say he's failed to meet expectations in his first three years in Florida. This is the best season of his Panthers tenure and nobody is going to call this season anything spectacular. Florida is going to likely need a good goaltending performance when you consider who's in the other crease in this series.

Andrei Vasilevskiy wasn't very Andrei Vasilevskiy-like for the first five games of the first round. The Maple Leafs scored 20 goals in the first five games, and Vasilevskiy had posted a -1.2 goals saved above expectation (GSAx) mark. Obviously, the Leafs have a tremendous offense, but that is certainly the case with the Panthers as well.

Thankfully for the Lightning, Vasilevskiy rebounded in the final two games of the series. He held Toronto to just four goals combined in Game 6 and 7. He really made his money in Game 7, where he stopped 30 of 31 shots and posted a +2.58 GSAx according to MoneyPuck. While many will talk about the Lightning's offensive capabilities, take a look at what Vasilevskiy has done in Tampa Bay's last six series clinching games:

  • 2020 Conference Final Game 6: 2-1 overtime win

  • 2020 Stanley Cup Final Game 6: 2-0 win

  • 2021 Round 1 Game 6: 4-0 win

  • 2021 Round 2 Game 5: 2-0 win

  • 2021 Conference Final Game 7: 1-0 win

  • 2021 Stanley Cup Final Game 5: 1-0 win

  • 2022 Round 1 Game 7: 2-1 win

That's seven games and a combined two goals against with five shutouts. When the Lightning have needed a goaltending performance over the last two-plus years, Vasilevskiy has provided one. Florida is the better team in this series, but Vasilevskiy is the Lightning's best chance at pulling off the upset. If this takes a turn toward being a lower-scoring series, I'll take Vasilevskiy over Bobrovsky in a heartbeat. With Brayden Point out to begin the series and potentially longer, the Lightning might need to lean on Vasilevskiy even more against the potent Panthers.

How to bet the series

The Tampa Bay Lightning have now won nine playoff series in a row, which will surely entice bettors into taking a shot with the back-to-back champions at a +120 price to win this series. It's hard to argue with anyone who trusts the winning pedigree of this team and feels like the Panthers might not be ready to win in the playoffs just yet.

However, at -145 odds, I think this price is low enough to go in on Florida. The -145 odds suggest an implied probability of 59% that Florida wins this series. However, if you look at public models, they all agree that might be underselling the Panthers in this series. MoneyPuck.com gives Florida a 63.5% chance of advancing to Round 3, while Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic has Florida winning this series 71% of the time.

The status of Brayden Point is massive in this series. Point has established himself as a big-time playoff performer over the last two seasons and is one of three elite forwards the Lightning possess alongside Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Point is doubtful to play in Game 1 and will be reevaluated as the series progresses. Tampa Bay will likely need goals to keep pace with the Panthers and a lack of Point would hurt.

Florida was the better team when these two teams met in the playoffs last season, but the Panthers were sunk by goaltending. In that series, Bobrovsky ended up losing his net and Spencer Knight entered for Florida. It was too little, too late for the Panthers. We saw that Florida could hang with this team last year, but would Tampa Bay winning this series again this year due to a goaltending advantage be a surprise? Hardly.

You can make a case for both sides here. Tampa Bay is probably getting some extra respect from the oddsmakers due to their recent playoff history. Then again, you can't complain about getting the Lightning at plus-money to win a playoff series. It's already paid off in Round 1. Florida was the best team in the league and -145 is not a large price to pay if you think the magic will end for Tampa Bay in this round. It should be a tremendous series, and as always in the Stanley Cup playoffs, almost nothing would be overly shocking.