Over the first half of the NHL season, only one team won more games than it lost to the Lightning.
It wasn’t the Dallas Stars, Tampa Bay’s opponent in last season’s Stanley Cup final. It wasn’t the Columbus Blue Jackets, who swept the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Lightning in the opening round of the 2018-19 postseason. Or even the Nashville Predators, just three-plus seasons removed from the Cup final.
It was the Florida Panthers, who haven’t won a postseason series in 23 seasons.
Though Tampa Bay (23-6-2) evened the season series at two games apiece with a 5-3 win Sunday at Amalie Arena, Florida is responsible for two of the Lightning’s league-low six regulation losses this season.
The Panthers (20-7-4) so far have posed the biggest threat to the Stanley Cup champions during this truncated season in which teams play only within their division through the regular season and first two rounds of the playoffs.
With the top four teams in each division qualifying for the postseason, it’s likely the Lightning will face the Panthers in the first or second round, depending on seeding.
“They’re a very good team,” Lightning forward Alex Killorn said Sunday night.
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When the NHL realigned its divisions before the season to limit travel during the pandemic, the Lightning and Stars looked to be the class of the division. But Dallas, which hosts Tampa Bay on Tuesday and Thursday, sits in seventh place, 20 points behind the Lightning.
It’s been the Panthers, who trail the Lightning by four points, and Carolina Hurricanes (five points back) that have presented the bigger challenges.
Why Florida, whose playoff win series drought is the longest active streak in the league?
“This is a different team than we’ve played in the past,” Killorn said. “I think they’ve added some key guys, and it’s hard to play against them.”
Forwards Carter Verhaeghe (12 goals, 24 points) — who won the Cup with Tampa Bay last season before leaving as a free agent — Anthony Duclair (14 points), Alexander Wennberg (14 points) and Patric Hornqvist (12 goals, 25 points) have given Florida depth throughout the lineup. The Panthers might be one of the few teams in the division that can roll out multiple lines, similar to the Lightning.
Florida showed its bona fides by beating Tampa Bay twice in three games over a five-day span in mid-February.
The Panthers used their speed and puck possession to take control in a 5-2 win over the Lightning on Feb. 11. Tampa Bay rebounded two days later to beat Florida 6-1, but the Panthers bounced right back, beating the Lightning 6-4 in a game in which coach Jon Cooper said Tampa Bay “gifted” Florida too many opportunities.
On Sunday, Cooper called the Panthers “a hell of a team.”
They’re also well-coached. In his previous stop, Joel Quenneville led the Chicago Blackhawks to three Stanley Cups in a six-year span, including a six-game victory over the Lightning in the 2014-15 Cup final.
“They’re structured, they play hard, they all can skate, they have skill,” Cooper said. “They’ve got a good team. They play with confidence, too, and when you have that, you feel like you can win every game.”
Dallas (10-10-8), meanwhile, has lost almost twice as many games as it has won this season, when you include overtime and shootout losses.
The Stars’ season was sidetracked almost before it began, as a coronavirus outbreak and winter storm that knocked out power across the state forced eight games to be rescheduled. Things haven’t improved much since, as Dallas has gone 5-6-4 in its last 15 games.
Injuries have played a significant role, too, as center Tyler Seguin (hip) and goaltender Ben Bishop (knee) have yet to play following offseason surgeries. Forwards Alexander Radulov and Roope Hintz and defenseman Mark Pysyk were injured earlier this month, and two more forwards (Radek Faksa and Joel Kiviranta) were added to the list on Sunday.
In their three games against the Lightning this season, the Stars have been outscored 11-3, including back-to-back shutout losses in late February-early March. In addition to an inability to put the puck in the net, Dallas was hampered by sloppy puck possession and subpar goaltending.
It’s clear the Stars aren’t the same team that pushed the Lightning to six games in the Cup final.
Thanks to the Blackhawks’ recent slide (1-6 in their last seven games) and inconsistent play by the Predators and Blue Jackets, the Stars are just five points out of a potential playoff spot. But they’re no longer the threat they were once perceived to be.
That team now resides in South Florida.
at Stars, 8:30 p.m. Tuesday
American Airlines Center, Dallas
TV/radio: Fox Sports Sun, radio: 970 AM