In a season unlike any other in NHL history, there was simply no way to predict how things would go. This was especially true in the Discover Central Division, which featured not only the 2020 Stanley Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lightning, but the Dallas Stars, whom they beat to claim the Cup, placing the top two teams from the previous year in the same division for the first time in years.
While the regular season was compressed and filled with tough scheduling, Tampa Bay still managed to pull through, establishing themselves as one of the top teams in their division. Now with the regular season at its end, the Lightning know who they will be squaring off against in Round 1, and it is both a familiar and foreign foe in the Florida Panthers. In their nearly 30-year history, Tampa Bay has faced the Panthers more times in the regular season than any other team in the NHL, yet they have never met them in the postseason. While this often referenced fact is irrelevant for this series, it will finally be marked off the list when the two Floridian franchises square off in 2021.
For the Lightning, this is just another series in their long list of recent postseason play. For the Panthers, however, it could be a franchise-altering event after spending the last 20-plus years waiting for their next taste of playoff success. So, if the Bolts are going to get by their in-state rivals, they will have to meet and exceed their likely explosive intensity levels.
Lightning Can’t Underestimate Upstart Panthers
When you talk about a franchise as they enter a postseason matchup, you should first look at where they are at emotionally. While this may sound a bit strange, when a team is coming into the playoffs with a bit of desperation in their game, they tend to ramp up faster to match postseason play than a team that is either coasting or just holding onto their spot and waiting out the end of the regular season.
The ultimate example of this is the 2019 Lightning, who were one of the best regular-season teams ever, but were historically swept out of the first round of the playoffs by a Columbus Blue Jackets squad that played desperate hockey for weeks to even secure the eight-seed in the East. Once Columbus survived the first period of Game 1, they brought a level of intensity to their game that Tampa Bay failed to meet until they were down 3-0 in the series.
In contrast, throughout the 2020 playoffs, the Lightning played every game like it was their last. Each time they stepped on the ice, you could feel that they were on a mission to win the Stanley Cup, and there would be absolutely no team in the league that would stop them. This mindset carried them through the doldrums of the Bubble, injuries, and even a five-overtime epic, eventually leading them to their ultimate goal.
I only mention this because in the last two games of the regular season, when these teams faced off to decide who would have home-ice advantage in the series, the Panthers just had a level of intensity that the Lightning couldn’t match. While this can be attributed to injuries, which were plentiful for Tampa Bay, Florida looked like a team on a mission to break one of the longest postseason droughts in all of North American sports.
This doesn’t mean that the Lightning won’t match the Panthers’ intensity levels for Game 1, but Florida just looked like one of those teams that will be ready to hit the ice and take on the world in a way that Tampa Bay may not be.
Injuries Could Stifle Lightning’s Potential
Regardless of how they played throughout the regular season, if the Lightning are stepping on the ice with a healthy hockey team, they should be considered the favorites to win that game, as they feature one of the best rosters across the league. However, due to a slew of injuries, this team may not be able to play up to their full potential in Round 1.
First and foremost is Victor Hedman, who missed the last two games of the season due to injury. While these were likely rest days, it has been reported that he may be dealing with a nagging injury throughout the last month of play, which would explain why his play hasn’t been as dominant as normal in that timespan. While Hedman at even 80 percent is still better than most players in the league, trying to replace your Conn Smythe Trophy-winning defenseman mid-series can be an impossible task, especially if his nagging injury becomes serious enough to keep him off the ice entirely.
Along with Hedman is Steven Stamkos, who missed a large chunk of the regular season with an injury, and Nikita Kucherov, who sat out all of the 2020-21 regular season after having an offseason surgery. The good news is, both players are expected to start for Game 1 of this series. The bad news is, after missing so much time, it may take them a little bit to get back up to game speed, which will be made more difficult against an opponent as fast and skilled as Florida. These are two true superstars in the league, though, so they should be fine heading into the series, but you would always prefer them to get a tune-up game or two before jumping into meaningful postseason games.
Besides these star players, you also have names like Ondrej Palat, Barclay Goodrow, and Ryan McDonagh who all missed time recently with injury. While they may not have the same impact as one of the players above, they all still play an important role for the franchise and were vital to their Stanley Cup victory. If one or two of these players are unable to go for the start of the series, then the Lightning will be looking at an immediate uphill battle, as they attempt to find adequate replacements for their important roles on the ice.
Despite Concerns, Lightning Still Can Defend the Stanley Cup
While it may appear that I am being down on the Lightning in this preview, that is more just being overcautious after seeing indicators that should raise some flags for fans. On paper, this is an incredible team, and if they can all get back on the ice for Game 1, they should be able to get past the Panthers in a tough but winnable series.
The problem is, Florida is a really good team that was playing great hockey heading into the postseason, where Tampa Bay was working through a lot of injuries and exhaustion that you often see from teams who go on a long postseason run. This made their last few games land with a thud, as the team was mostly backup players who were taking on ice-time that they overmatched for.
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If the Lightning can hit the ice in Game 1 with the intensity they brought with them throughout their run to the 2020 Stanley Cup, then they should be able to keep up with the Panthers no matter how their rivals are playing. Either way, expect this to be an incredible matchup, that should go at least six hard-fought games and could be one of the best series throughout Round 1 of the postseason.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.