It’s time for the Sunshine State Series, Round 2
TORONTO – For many teams this season, the Lightning hit the bullseye after winning back-to-back Stanley Cup championships.
For the rival Florida Panthers, they were the model.
Now the teams find themselves in the playoffs with more than Sunshine State’s bragging rights on the line.
Ask Lightning players and coaches and they’ll tell you that last year’s first-round playoff series against the Panthers was perhaps the toughest test of their back-to-back series. Panthers are extremely skilled, fiery, and physical. And now, after compiling the best regular season record, they also have a Presidents’ Trophy, which the Lightning know can be as much of a curse as an accomplishment.
These teams have seen each other 18 times since the start of the 2020-21 season, and their 9-9 record shows how evenly matched they are.
“Florida is one hell of a team,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “We have watched them all year. We had incredible battles with them. I think people, especially in Florida, have been begging for both teams to be in contention and get on with it. I think last year a lot of people were saying this could have been the (best) playoff series.
Ask the Panthers, and they credit the Lightning with making them better. Their one-on-one battles, especially in the playoffs, showed a Florida team learning how to win in the playoffs, understanding what it takes.
“I just did pre-scout this morning, yeah, you’re really familiar because nothing’s really changed,” Florida coach Andrew Brunette said. “We played against each other. They helped make us a better team. We kind of saw with our own eyes how hard it is and what it takes, and playing against them is always a challenge.
Florida’s win in the first round of the series felt a lot like the Lightning’s, and it put the Panthers over the hump by ending the franchise’s 26-year playoff series drought.
The Panthers were on the verge of elimination, trailing the Capitals 2-1, and had to rally to beat a Washington team that had outscored them 10-3 in their two losses. Florida went on to win the next three games by a total of four goals, gaining momentum with a Game 4 overtime win and winning the Game 6 overtime series. Former Lightning forward Carter Verhaeghe had 12 points in the series, with the winning goal in the last game.
“It’s an exciting challenge for us for who we want to be and the opportunity to play them again, to have that chance,” Brunette said of facing the Lightning. “It’s been a fun rivalry over the last few years. They beat us in the playoffs, so they’re in place and we have the opportunity to tie.
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Last year’s postseason meeting was the first between the teams, and the Lightning won in six games.
“Interesting rivalries arise when you play teams multiple times in the playoffs now,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “Our division was crazy this year. You beat a team like Toronto, a top-five team in the league, and then you get the best team in the regular season now in the second round.
“It was a hell of a streak last year in the first round. We had another amazing streak this year (in the first round),” Stamkos added. “You can’t get carried away with the emotions of this show. …It’s just the foot on the accelerator. It’s the playoffs, but it’s going to be one hell of a streak.
The Lightning will have to be ready to play without center Brayden Point, who is likely out indefinitely with an apparent right leg/hip injury. Point awkwardly twisted his right leg as he fell into the boards late in the first period of Game 7, immediately clutching his right hip in pain. He skated off the ice, unable to put weight on his right leg. He tried to come back in the second period, but couldn’t skate without pain.
The point was huge in last season’s playoff round against Florida, scoring four goals and two assists. He was the hero of the Lightning’s Game 1 win over the Panthers at Sunrise, scoring a power-play tying goal with seven minutes left in regulation time before scoring the winner with 74 seconds left in the third.
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