2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs Central Division preview: (3) Lightning vs. (2) Panthers

If the current state of the world makes absolutely no sense, then it’s probably because we are getting playoff hockey between two teams from the state of Florida close to the start of the summer. 

Yes, the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning will square off with the Florida Panthers in the first round of the divisional matchups. Although these teams play in the southeast, the NHL has classified them as Central division squads. 

Both Florida and Tampa Bay ranked inside the top 10 in goals scored and goals allowed, so we may have a high-octane, high-volume series with a lot of pace and many quality chances created. 

This series will come down to who brings the better goaltender to string four wins. 

Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was once again at the top of his game this season with 31 wins in 42 outings along with a .925 save percentage and 2.21 goals against average. 

While still collecting 19 wins in 30 starts, Sergei Bobrovsky did not keep pace with Vasilevskiy’s talent as the Panther had an underwhelming .906 save percentage and a GAA just south of 3.00. 

During the regular season, the fewest goals scored between the two teams in their eight meetings was the finale where Florida shutout Tampa Bay 4-0. Outside of that matchup, there was a wild arrange of scores such as 5-2, 6-1, 6-4 and 5-3 (2x). Like I said, a lot of goals will be scored in this series. 

The attack for the Panthers is led by forwards Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov. While not blowing the league away in production like a certain Edmonton Oiler did, the two frontmen just need to do their job for Florida and not set their standards ridiculously high. They will get their goals and they will need their teammates in Carter Verhaeghe, Anthony Duclair and MacKenzie Weegar to continue to be key contributors as all three of their +/- ratings were over +20. 

While Tampa’s roster doesn’t flash any gaudy numbers, everyone contributes for the team and they know how to win games. 

Brayden Point led the way in production for the Lightning with 23 goals and 25 assists in the regular season. However, is +2 rating could make him a liability defensively against the high-scoring Panthers team. This is where defenseman and 2020 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Victor Hedman needs to assert his size and aggression to slow Florida down. 

Outside of these two, pay attention to Yanni Gourde and Barclay Goodrow. The latter led the team in +/-, while Gourde continues to rise up the ranks as one of the top producers for the defending Cup champions. 

This is going to be a series where you can’t blink. There are good goaltenders, but the chances will be too much for either Vasilevskiy or Bobrovsky to really shine. Instead, focus on the team that asserts their forecheck and can slow down the other first. 

I’m sticking with the more experienced playoff team. 

Prediction: Lightning in six

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