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Four Burning Questions - Lightning v. Panthers

For the second consecutive year, the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning will meet in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Lightning defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games, while the Panthers took out the Washington Capitals in six games, winning a playoff series for the first time since the 1995-96 season. While the Lightning took care of the Panthers in Round One of the 2020-21 playoffs, both teams look vastly different this time around. Here are four potential questions for the second round.

Who Subs In for Brayden Point?

I asked a similar question to this about Point before round one, and it still applies, but for a different reason. The dynamic center took a nasty fall in game six, one that saw him out of the rest of the game minus a 25-second shift in the second period. The injury did not look good when it happened, and while there is no official diagnosis as of the writing of this piece, the odds of him playing are slim, and he is doubtful to play in game one.

Jon Cooper certainly has options as to what a Point-less lineup might look like. There is a solid possibility that Corey Perry becomes the right winger alongside Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn. Perry had two goals in the first round, but his fourth-line style led to him being second on the team in penalty minutes (16) and playing the third-least minutes among skaters (9:50 ATOI). Cooper could potentially move Ross Colton up the lineup, but he's been playing really well on that third line with Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul (more on that later). Finally, Cooper could go with the 11F/7D method that has worked out in the playoffs before.

Does Special Teams Take a Dip?

In the first round, special teams were the story in the Leafs-Lightning series, despite the Lightning going 1/15 in the first two games of the series, they finished round one at a respectable 21.2% success rate on the power play. Against a dynamite Maple Leafs power play, the Lightning PK held their own at 85.7% success rate. On the other side of the coin, the Panthers did not score a single goal on the power play in their six game series against Washington, and put up a less-than-average 70.8% on the penalty kill.

While it is unrealistic to expect the Lightning to keep the Panthers at a 0% clip, it's important for the penalty kill to continue their strong play. For the Lightning, it's all about zone entries for their power play. Too often in round one, the Lightning would lose the opening draw, then lose offensive zone possession, and would have a hard time getting the zone back. If they start to win offensive zone draws on the power play and give themselves a chance, they should have a much better chance at beating the Panthers power play.

Does the First Goal Matter?

In Florida's first round series, they scored the first goal of the game in only one of the six games. Conversely, the Lightning scored the first goal of the game in five of the seven games in their series. The Panthers showed time and time again in the regular season that trailing games wasn't a problem, as their five come-from-behind wins from 3+ goals down led the NHL, and their 29 overall comeback wins also led the league. We even saw the Panthers' comeback abilities in round one, as they made a three goal comeback in game five and a two goal comeback in game six.

The Lightning also had experience in comeback wins this season, as they were tied for second in 2 goal comebacks. The problem with the Lightning was holding their leads in games five and six, both in which they had multi-goal leads and gave up the lead. While the Lightning were so good at holding leads in the regular season, the Panthers were the league's best at making comebacks. Should be a fascinating matchup.

Whose Depth Steps Up?

Outside of the Colorado Avalanche, the Panthers and Lightning might have the best depth in the NHL. In a series in which Jonathan Huberdeau struggled, the Panthers used their depth to its fullest extent. Former Bolt Carter Verhaeghe was spectacular, finishing the first round second in the entire league in playoff points (12), trailing only Connor McDavid. Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett, and Anthony Duclair were all vital for the depth of the Panthers offense.

On the other side, the Lightning's depth were the main reason they pulled out the series win against the Leafs. Ross Colton tied fro the team lead in goals in that first round (3), while both Nick Paul and Corey Perry put up multiple goals. Even the defensive depth stepped up for the Lightning, with Zach Bogosian and Cal Foote stepping into big roles with the absence of Jan Rutta.

Even with all of the top firepower for both teams, whichever teams' depth steps up the most should win the series.

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