If the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning don’t already know each other pretty well, the two in-state rivals will soon enough.
Not only will the Lightning visit the Panthers in Sunrise, Fla., for a two-game series to conclude the 2020-21 regular season, the two teams will open the playoffs against each other.
It will be the first time the two in-state rivals will face each other in a playoff series. The Lightning joined the NHL in 1992, Florida a year later.
The Carolina Hurricanes clinched the Central Division title by virtue of Dallas’ 5-2 win in Tampa on Friday night.
The Lightning (36-15-3, 75 points) and Panthers (35-14-5, 75 points) are tied for second in the division.
Home ice in the opening round will be determined by the results of the two games in Sunrise.
If the teams split and remain tied in points, Tampa Bay would win the tiebreaker due to a higher number of regulation wins.
Neither coach seems to be looking at these games as warm-ups nor exhibitions before the real competition begins.
“We will be playing to win,” said Florida coach Joel Quenneville, whose team is 3-2-1 against the Lightning this season. “There is still a lot at stake. There is home ice, and we’re still sorting things out as nothing has been finalized yet. It’s not etched in stone. We’ll play it one game at a time with the purpose to win that game. We’ll go from there.”
Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said: “We like where we’re at. When you get close to the playoffs, it’s always good to be playing for something, even if it is home ice and you kind of know who you’re going to play. You don’t want your team taking their foot off the gas.”
The Lightning started Curtis McElhinney in goal on Friday, and he made 26 saves against Dallas, so Andrei Vasilevskiy is expected to start against the Panthers in the series opener Saturday.
In four previous games against the Panthers this season, Vasilevskiy is 2-2 with a 2.10 goals-against average and .928 save percentage.
Quenneville said he will go back to Sergei Bobrovsky in net after playing rookie Spencer Knight on Monday against visiting Dallas.
Bobrovsky is expected to start Game 1 against the Lightning in the postseason. He is 18-8-2 with a 2.97 GAA and .906 save percentage during the regular season.
In four games against the Lightning this year, Bobrovsky has gone 2-2 with a 3.79/.854.
Bobrovsky won his previous start against the Lightning, making 28 saves in a 5-3 win on April 17.
The Panthers also could return several players dealing with injuries as Patric Hornqvist, Carter Verhaeghe and Sam Bennett all practiced the two days leading into Saturday’s game.
Quenneville said some of those players might be held out Saturday — he did not indicate which ones — but he said he expects every player to be available on Monday night.
–Field Level Media