Florida Panthers defenseman MacKenzie Weegar (52) and Tampa Bay Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (71) go for the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Monday, May 10, 2021, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Lightning, Panthers Set for Battle for Florida

It’s the battle for Florida. The team on the Gulf Coast against the team on the Atlantic Coast. The fight to defend the Stanley Cup. The fight to advance beyond the first round for the first time since 1996. It’s time.

Down in Sunrise, Fla., the Tampa Bay Lightning will face the Florida Panthers in the first game of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Will the Lightning strike, or will the Panthers catch their prey?

This is not your usual matchup between the two teams. With the Panthers taking it to the next level this season, the Bolts are up against a tough offense. They’ve already been a pain in their side this year.

The Bolts finished with a head-to-head record of 3-5 against Florida. While injuries make for a good excuse for the final two losses of the year, the Panthers were a tough opponent even against a healthy Lightning team.

Expect an offensive battle, despite Andrei Vasilevskiy saving shots in net.

Bolts Expected to Receive a Boost

Star forwards Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are expected to return for the first round of the playoffs. Stamkos has been out for the last few weeks, while Kucherov has yet to play a game this season due to hip surgery in the offseason.

This reunites the scoring trifecta, including Stammer, Kuch and Brayden Point.

The Bolts have been able to find success with all three healthy and even just two. However, when down to one, is when the Bolts start to fall behind. Having all three back will give them the boost they lacked down the final stretch of the regular season.

Tampa Bay expects defenseman Victor Hedman back as well, as he has been participating in practice. The Bolts’ defense struggled mightily against Florida even with him in the game. Getting him back, along with fellow defenseman Ryan McDonagh, gives them a fighting chance in their own zone.

Panthers Growling Offense and Reliable Defense

The Panthers enter with the most goals scored in the Central Division and averaging nearly four goals a game against the Lightning.

The Cats have been led by forwards Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov. Both teammates are top two in goals, assists and points respectively.

Other forwards to look out for are Patrick Hornqvist, Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair.

  • Hornqvist: 32 points, 44 games
  • Verhaeghe: 36 points, 43 games
  • Duclair: 32 points in 43 games

Even without defenseman Aaron Ekblad, the Panthers’ defense managed to hold together and finish eleventh in goals against this season. Keith Yandle and MacKenzie Weegar lead the defense, along with former Bolts Anton Stralman and Radko Gudas.

Barry Melrose Joins the Sport Scene

NHL analyst Barry Melrose joined the Sport Scene with Steve Russell for hockey talk.

Melrose said the Bolts enter as the best team in the NHL. That being said, it comes down to the health of key players.

Melrose added that the Stanley Cup Playoffs are a different animal than the regular season. While the Bolts have proven their playoff capabilities, the Panthers have not.

This does not take away from the fact that Florida had a strong season thus far. To repeat the stat from earlier, they took five of eight games against Tampa Bay. But winning a playoff series is a needed next step for them.

Game Times

Game One and Two will be in Sunrise at BB&T Center, with Games Four and Five over in Tampa at Amalie Arena.

If necessary, Games Five and Seven will be in Sunrise, with Game Six in Tampa.

Puck drop for Game One is set for 7:30 p.m. There will be radio coverage on 98.1FM/850 AM WRUF starting at 7 p.m. The telecast will be on NBC Sports Network.

About Harrison Smajovits

Harrison is a sports coordinator at ESPN 98.1 FM/850 AM WRUF. He served as a beat writer for Florida Gators football for the 2019 and 2020 seasons. He also contributes to WRUF's Gainesville Sports Center segments and makes appearances on the Clash on Harp on Sports. Harrison has been a content writer for WRUF since January 2019 as well.

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