The Lightning and Panthers spent eight games this season learning each other’s strengths and weaknesses, with Florida gaining the winning edge five times out. The teams will put that knowledge to the test when it really matters as first-round playoff opponents (no official dates yet).
If you’re pulling for the defending Stanley Cup champs, pay special attention to these five Panthers players. They’re the ones who may prove the most problematic for Tampa Bay’s repeat title run.
Aleksander Barkov, center
Barkov leads the team in goals (26) and is second in points (58) behind Jonathan Huberdeau (61). Even though this year featured fewer games (50), his scoring prowess and pace are notable in comparison to his previous top seasons: 2018-19 (35 goals, 82 games), followed by 2015-16 (28 goals, 66 games) and 2017-18 (27 goals, 79 games). He’s also a favorite for the Selke Trophy, awarded to the best NHL forward “who excels in the defensive aspects of the game.”
Notable 2021 moment: Barkov’s 26th goal of the season was a beauty against the Stars on May 3. From the right faceoff circle, he one-timed a pass past goaltender Anton Khudobin for the overtime win.
Against the Lightning: Barkov’s scoring touch wasn’t always evident against Tampa Bay, with just one goal, but he did have seven assists.
Power play: From March 11 until April 13, the captain logged 13 goals in 10 games. Two of those were two-goal games and he was held scoreless only four times.
Jonathan Huberdeau, left wing
Huberdeau is Florida’s other 20-goal scorer with team highs in points (61) and assists (41). He missed the season finale against the Lightning with an upper-body injury, but is expected to return for the start of the postseason. About a third of the way through the season (starting March 4 at Nashville), Huberdeau went on a stretch where he notched 18 points (six goals, 12 assists) in 16 games.
Notable 2021 moment: Against Nashville on April 27, Huberdeau scored his first career hat trick and had two assists for a five-point outing.
Against the Lightning: Huberdeau has collected four assists and three goals, including a score in the regular-season finale.
Power play: Huberdeau has logged at least 20 goals in the past four seasons of his eight-year career in the league.
MacKenzie Weegar, defenseman
Weegar is having a career year with a personal-best 36 points and 30 assists, and he leads the team with 83 blocks. The defenseman has stepped up in Aaron Ekblad’s absence from the blue line (Ekblad fractured his leg in March).
Notable 2021 moment: Weegar opened scoring against the Lightning in the regular-season finale. He stripped the puck from forward Anthony Cirelli just past the blue line in the defensive zone and raced up the ice. Then Weegar found forward Mason Marchment in the neutral zone. As Marchment made his way toward goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, he lost control of the puck, but Weegar regained it and took a shot from the top of the slot for his second goal in three games.
Against the Lightning: Weegar has logged three assists and one goal. He also high-sticked Mathieu Joseph with 1:18 remaining in regulation Saturday night, leading to a $5,000 fine.
Power play: Weegar is second on the team in hits (118) behind former Lightning defenseman Radko Gudas (250).
Sam Bennett, center
Bennett came to the Panthers in a trade from Calgary on April 12 as a bottom-six player with inconsistent linemates (and results). Since the move, he has logged 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in 10 games on Florida’s second line, and only one game has passed without a point.
Notable 2021 moment: Bennett’s chemistry on the power-play unit hasn’t taken long to develop. On Saturday, he scored the only power-play goal for a 2-0 lead against the Lightning.
Against the Lightning: Bennett has three assists and one goal in two games against Tampa Bay. One of his most notable plays came in his first game for the Panthers on April 17 when he had two assists (one on the opening goal) in Florida’s 5-3 win.
Power play: Bennett’s 15 points with the Panthers are a franchise high for any player in his first 10 games with the team.
Sergei Bobrovsky, goaltender
This won’t be the first time Bobrovsky and Vasilevskiy go head-to-head in a postseason series. Bobrovsky’s season stats (.906 save percentage; 2.91 goals-against average) may not be as lofty as Vasilevskiy’s (.925; 2.21 — both top 10 in the league), but he does have postseason bragging rights. He and the Blue Jackets swept the Lightning in the 2019-20 opening round.
Notable 2021 moment: In a high-pressure situation (one that ended with a combined 146 penalty minutes from both teams), Bobrovsky kept his cool during Saturday’s fight night against the Lightning. He was right in the action for the first scrum about six minutes into the game and blocked the next 26 of 27 shots in the Panthers’ 5-1 win.
Against the Lightning: Bobrovsky went 3-2 for a combined .877 save percentage. He has turned away 116 of the Lightning’s 132 shots on goal.
Power play: With one more win, Bobrovsky will tie Mark Fitzpatrick (43) for fifth-most wins in Panthers history. He is three removed from his 300th career win.
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