Watch CBS News

Panthers playoffs are here and here we go again vs. Tampa: CBS Sports Miami's Steve Goldstein

CBS News Live
CBS News Miami Live

SUNRISE - By late 2023 we knew the Florida Panthers would be a playoff team, a few months after they reached the Stanley Cup final. All that was left was finishing up the second-best season in franchise history and winning another division title.

For all their efforts, they get a third meeting in the last four years with cross-state rival Tampa Bay. The Lightning won the previous two series in 2021 and 2022. Now, the Cats get their shot at redemption after it seemed 96 hours ago that Toronto would be the Panthers' first-round opponent. But a couple of Panthers wins coupled with Bruins losses, and it's another all-Florida fight on the ice starting this weekend.

Take Your Shot
After a hard fought series in 2021, the Panthers faltered the following year getting swept by the Lightning in the second round of the playoffs. But it may have been the best thing that ever happened to the franchise because the Cats realized they needed to change the way they play to win in the postseason. General Manager Bill Zito made numerous changes to become a more playoff type team stylistically and it has paid off. Now, the Panthers get to prove they have caught up to the Lightning in a third playoff matchup.

Captain On Point
One would assume that Panthers coach Paul Maurice would match up Aleksander Barkov on Tampa's top center Brayden Point and perhaps Jon Cooper will do the same behind the Lightning bench in Tampa. Point has had big games against the Panthers in his career, is a great skater, puck hunter, and can score. Barkov is the best defensive forward in hockey and is playing his best overall hockey, somewhat quietly, down the stretch. If this ends up being the matchup for most of the series, the winner between the two stars could go a long way toward deciding the series.

Stay Smart
At even strength, the Panthers are the better team. But Tampa Bay's power play is deadly. Led by Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, along with Victor Hedman, the Lightning can win games on their special teams alone. The Panthers need to be smart and limit their time in the penalty box.

Playoff Bob
Simply put, Tampa has one of the great all-time playoff goaltenders in net. But the way Sergei Bobrovsky played last year in the postseason, and the season he's had this year, gives the Panthers a more than competitive goalie situation. Bobrovsky will have to be near his best for the Panthers to win this series.

The Tkachuk Quote
Two summers ago, when the Panthers made the blockbuster trade to bring Matthew Tkachuk to South Florida he had the famous comment in his opening press conference.

"I still hate Edmonton, but I hate Tampa more," he said.

Well, now the playoff hero from last season gets a shot at the cross- state rival with the money on the line.

Paul Maurice has one decision to make in his lineup. The right winger on the fourth line has been rotating and numerous players could competently fill the spot. Expected for Game 1:

Tarasenko, Barkov, Reinhart
Verhaeghe, Bennett ,Tkachuk
Luostarinen, Lundell, Rodrigues
Cousins Stenlund open (to be filled by Lomberg, Lorentz, Gadjovich or Okposo)

Forsling, Ekblad
Mikkola, Montour
Ekman-Larsson, Kulikov

Bottom Line
The Panthers are the better team top to bottom. They had a better season, have the depth advantage, and after last season's playoff run, they have the necessary experience. But Tampa still has the championship pedigree, played well down the stretch, and their handful of their top players can win a series by themselves. The Panthers will need to be their hard forechecking, hard-nosed, consistent selves to finally, for the first time in franchise history beat the Lightning in the playoffs. The Panthers have what it takes mentally and physically to do so.

Best of 7 Panthers vs Tampa Bay 

1. Sunday, April 21 12:30 p.m. Amerant Bank Arena 

2. Tuesday, April 23 7:30 p.m. Amerant Bank Arena

3. Thursday, April 25 7 p.m. Amalie Arena 

4. Saturday, April 27 5 p.m. Amalie Arena 

5. Monday, April 29 (if necessary)

6. Wednesday, 1 (if necessary) 

7. Saturday, May 4 (if necessary)

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.