TORONTO — For many teams this season, the Lightning were the bull’s-eye after winning back-to-back Stanley Cup championships.
For the Panthers, they were the blueprint.
Now the teams meet again in the postseason with more than Sunshine State bragging rights on the line.
Ask the Lightning’s players and coaches, and they’ll tell you that last year’s first-round playoff series against the Panthers might have been the toughest test of their back-to-back run. The Panthers are extremely skilled, feisty and physical. And now, after compiling the best regular-season record this year, they also have a Presidents’ Trophy, which the Lightning know well can be as much of a curse as it is an accomplishment.
These teams have seen each other 18 times since the beginning of the 2020-21 season, including playoffs, and their 9-9 record shows how evenly matched they are.
“Florida is a hell of a team,” coach Jon Cooper said. “We’ve watched them all year. We’ve had some amazing battles with them. I think people, especially in Florida, have been begging for the two teams to be contenders and go at it. I think last year that many people said that might have been the (best) series of the playoffs.”
The Panthers credit the Lightning for making them better. The teams’ battles, especially in the postseason, showed a Florida team learning how to win in the playoffs what it takes.
“Just kind of going through the prescout … you’re really familiar because nothing’s really changed,” Florida interim coach Andrew Brunette said. “We played against each other. They helped make us a better team. We kind of saw first-hand how hard it is and what it takes, and playing against them is always a challenge.”
Florida’s first-round series win against the Capitals this year was much like the Lightning’s series with the Maple Leafs, and it put the Panthers over the hump by ending the franchise’s 26-year postseason series-win drought.
The Panthers trailed the Capitals 2-1 in the series, outscored 10-3 in the losses, then won the next three games, two of them in overtime. Former Lightning forward Carter Verhaeghe had 12 points in the series, including the winning goal in each of the last three games.
“It’s an exciting challenge for us for what we want to be and the opportunity to play (the Lightning) again, to get that chance,” Brunette said. “It’s been a fun rivalry over the last few years. They beat us in the playoffs, so they’re up, and we get an opportunity to even it.”
Last year’s postseason meeting was the first between the teams, and the Lightning prevailed in six games.
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“Interesting rivalries are born when you play teams multiple times in the playoffs now,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “Our division was crazy this year. You beat a team like Toronto, a top-five team in the league, and then you get the best team in the regular season now in the second round.
“That was one heck of a series last year in the first round. We had another unbelievable series this year (in the first round). You can’t let the emotions of this series get you. … It’s just foot on the gas. That’s the playoffs, but it’s going to be a heck of a series.”
The Lightning will have to be prepared to play without center Brayden Point, who likely is out indefinitely with an apparent right leg/hip injury. Point awkwardly twisted his right leg as he fell into the boards late in the first period of Game 7 against the Maple Leafs, immediately holding his right hip in pain. He skated off the ice, unable to put weight on his right leg. He tried to return in the second period but couldn’t skate without pain, and he sat on the bench for the rest of the game.
Point was huge in last season’s playoff round against Florida, scoring four goals and getting two assists. He was the hero of the Lightning’s Game 1 win in Sunrise, scoring a tying power-play goal with seven minutes left in regulation before notching the winner with 74 seconds remaining in the third.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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