SUNRISE (CBSMiami) – For the second consecutive year, the Panthers play Tampa Bay in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Like last year, the Lightning are the defending champs. The Panthers gave them all they could handle in an exciting, physical six-game first round series. This time around the Cats are positioned better to dethrone the champions. Here's why:
The Panthers didn't have much going into last year's series. Learning from Tampa what it takes to win in the playoffs was an eye opener. Add in this year's first round series against Washington and the valuable, necessary experience has been gained.
Who's New This Year
The Panthers didn't have injured Aaron Ekblad in last year's series. He's back. Add in key newcomers Ben Chiarot, Claude Giroux, Sam Reinhart and Anton Lundell, and the Cats are much stronger up and down the lineup. They also have more quality depth with Eetu Luostarinen, Maxim Mamin and Joe Thornton.
What About Bob?
Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has played his best hockey in his three years in Florida. Against Washington he was calm and steady in net – making the key saves at critical times in games. Any goalie opposing Tampa's Andrei Vasilevsky has to put out of their mind trying to win the goaltending matchup. He is one of the best we have ever seen with the money on the line. Bobrovsky just needs to play his own game, do what he has been doing and give the NHL's best offense a chance to win four times.
All that said, the Panthers are still facing an experienced, motivated team that knows how to navigate the brutal playoff waters. Tampa trailed Toronto three games to two in the opening round but came back to win Game 6 in overtime and Game 7 on the road. The Lightning have now won nine consecutive playoff series. The Panthers will need to bring all they have, play smart and get a lead in the series. The last thing Florida wants is to face Vasilevsky in an elimination game where historically he's been dominant. The Cats were the best team in the league all season so they get home ice, which could propel them to a quick series start.
Game 1 Updates
Brayden Point did not practice Monday and is unlikely to play in game one. Point is a great postseason player and Tampa's top center. Mason Marchment is out for Game 1 for the Panthers. At Monday's practice, Anthony Duclair returned to the lineup skating next to Sam Bennett and Jonathan Huberdeau. It looks like Maxim Mamin will be out for Game 1.
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