The Sunshine State Stanley Cup playoffs showdown has no shortage of intriguing storylines as the Florida Panthers prepare to host the Tampa Bay Lightning in their opener Sunday in Sunrise, Fla.
This opening-round best-of-seven series mark the first time the Florida rivals have met in a playoff set, and that’s just the beginning of the excitement.
For starters, the defending Cup-champion Lightning will have a pair of star forwards returning to the lineup after a long hiatus due to injury. Not only will captain Steven Stamkos return after missing more than five weeks due to a lower-body injury, Nikita Kucherov will suit up for the first time after missing all of the regular season due to hip surgery.
“Right now, I feel really good,” Kucherov said. “Nothing’s bothering me. Feel strong. I think better than before.”
Kucherov battled through the injury all of last year’s playoff run and still netted seven goals and 27 assists in his team 25-game run to the title.
“I have to adjust real quick and try to slow down the game as much as I can and use the skill in my head to think the game and make those plays and adjust to the speed as the series goes on,” Kucherov said of jumping into the playoffs without any game action for so long. “Hopefully it’s not going to take long.”
The Lightning won’t have forward Barclay Goodrow to start the series due to an upper-body injury he suffered in the penultimate regular-season game.
While the Lightning will receive a jolt with their returnees, the Panthers, too, have plenty of reasons to believe they can unseat the defending champions.
Not only did the Panthers (37-14-5, 79 points) finish ahead of Tampa Bay (36-17-3, 75 points), they won five of the eight regular-season meetings — including a pair of convincing victories to end the season. The 5-1 and 4-0 victories at home enabled the Panthers to clinch second place in the Central Division and gain home advantage for the playoffs.
“We know them pretty well and they know us pretty well,” Panthers center Aleksander Barkov said. “It’s going to be a battle.”
The Panthers haven’t won a playoff series since they reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1995-96, their third year of existence. It’s been a long and difficult quarter century since — they have reached the playoffs only three times in the last 19 seasons — but the Panthers believe they’re primed to be a force.
While Tampa is considered a high-octane team, the Panthers actually led their division in goals per game, no small feat considering the division-champion Carolina Hurricanes are also in the Central.
One reason has been the addition of Sam Bennett, who was acquired from the Calgary Flames at the trade deadline. Bennett, the fourth overall pick in 2014, collected 15 points (6-9-15) in 10 games after the trade. He managed only a dozen points in 38 games with the Flames.
“He’s been an excellent fit for us,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “Right from the get-go, he’s in the middle, taking faceoffs, killing penalties, and now he’s a power-play guy.”
Bennett had his share of ups and downs during his days in Calgary, but has always been at his best in the playoffs. In 30 postseason games, he has scored 11 goals and 19 points with his buzzsaw play.
“Playoff hockey is my favorite time of year,” Bennett said. “It’s faster, more intense. Every play is magnified, and that’s how hockey should be played. I can’t wait to get going.”
–Field Level Media