It's all-Florida battle when Panthers face Lightning in Round 1

Series begins Sunday afternoon in Sunrise
Florida Panthers center Sam Reinhart (13) is congratulated by centers Eetu Luostarinen (27) and Aleksander Barkov (16) after Reinhart scored during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Tuesday, April 16, 2024, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Posted at 9:29 AM, Apr 21, 2024

SUNRISE, Fla. — Paul Maurice doesn't need any reminders going into these playoffs of what games between the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning mean to both teams.

In the eyes of the Panthers' coach, there were two clear examples this season. Florida led Tampa Bay 9-1 in the third period of a February game, and the Lightning skated hard all the way to the miserable end; Tampa Bay took a 4-0 lead midway through the teams' next meeting a month later, and the Panthers nearly pulled off an improbable comeback.

His point: When these teams meet, it's 60 minutes of grit, no matter what the scoreboard says.

"That's what this series is going to be here," Maurice said. "Neither team's going to quit. It's not going to be the score. It's going to be pride, fight. It's going to be an awesome series and you know it. There's no quit in either room. If we're all lucky, we can get it to seven games and overtime because that would be all the juice you can handle for a hockey season in one series."

It’s Us vs. Them. Them vs. Us. The battle of Florida. Tampa Bay and Florida meet in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The series starts Sunday on the Panthers' home ice in Sunrise (12:30 p.m.), about a four-hour drive from Tampa. It's the third Lightning-Panthers series, all coming in the last four years, with Tampa Bay winning the first one 4-2 in 2021 and then sweeping Florida in 2022.

"Are they going to push? Of course they are," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of the Panthers. "I feel like we can push as well. How we're going to stop that, that's up to us and the team to see what we can do."

Tampa Bay Lightning's Nikita Kucherov (86) celebrates his 100th assist of the season with Brandon Hagel (38) and Mitchell Chaffee (41), during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday, April 17, 2024, in Tampa, Fla. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
Tampa Bay Lightning's Nikita Kucherov (86) celebrates his 100th assist of the season with Brandon Hagel (38) and Mitchell Chaffee (41), during the second period of an NHL game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on pril 17, 2024, in Tampa, Fla.

The Lightning (98) finished 12 points behind Florida (110) in the standings. That won't matter at all starting Sunday.

It's been either Tampa Bay (2020, 2021, 2022) or Florida (2023) representing the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final in each of the last four years. The Lightning won back-to-back Cups in 2020 and 2021, adding those to the one they won in 2004 — while the Panthers are still waiting for their first title.

"It's a rivalry. There's no doubt about it," Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “They've had the blueprint. They've won. They've had success. They're still a hungry team; you can see it every time you play them. There's going to be no easy ice out there."


Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov won his second Art Ross Trophy this year with a league-best 144 points. He also became the third player ever with at least 40 goals and 100 assists in the same season.

The others? Wayne Gretzky (who did it 11 times) and Mario Lemieux (who did it once).

"Rare air," Cooper said.

Kucherov is a serious MVP candidate, and this number proves why: In 38 games against teams that would make the playoffs this season, he had 71 points. Only two other players in the NHL (Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon with 60 and Edmonton's Connor McDavid with 56) had more than 50 points against playoff-qualifying teams this season.

Kucherov — who factored in over 50% of Tampa Bay's goals — joined McDavid and Hall of Famers Gretzky, Lemieux and Bobby Orr as the only players to finish with 100 or more assists in a season.


This battle between veterans could be a great one. Florida's Sergei Bobrovsky (36-17-4, 2.37 GAA, .915 save percentage) will face off again with Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy (30-20-2, 2.90 GAA, .900 save percentage).

Both teams had some success on the other's goalie this season. Bobrovsky went 2-1-0 with a 2.71 GAA and .892 save clip against Tampa Bay. Vasilevskiy struggled against Florida, going 1-2-0 with a 4.51 GAA and .883 save rate.


Florida's strength might be balance, with four players — Sam Reinhart, Matthew Tkachuk, Aleksander Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe — finishing between 72 and 94 points this season.

Reinhart had the year of his life with 57 goals (second in the NHL behind Toronto's Auston Matthews' 69) and a league-best 27 on the power play.

Reinhart had 24.5% of his 233 shots on goal find the back of the net. The last player to take that many shots in a season and have such a high shooting percentage was Mario Lemieux (85 goals on 313 shots, 27.2%) in 1988-89.


Florida took 1,106 penalty minutes this season, two shy of Anaheim for the most in the NHL. Tampa Bay had the league's best power play this season at 28.6%.


The teams have played 167 times, including regular season and playoff games — and it really couldn't be much closer. Florida has won 79, Tampa Bay has won 78, and there were 10 ties when those were still possible.


AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa, Florida, contributed.