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These 5 Panthers players could pose trouble for the Lightning

Tampa Bay’s second-round opponent finished first in the league with 122 points thanks to a prolific offense.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy works to get a stop against Panthers right wing Patric Hornqvist (70) and center Aleksander Barkov (16) during an October game in Tampa.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy works to get a stop against Panthers right wing Patric Hornqvist (70) and center Aleksander Barkov (16) during an October game in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published May 15|Updated May 15

TAMPA — The Battle of Florida is on for Round Two of the playoffs.

The Panthers, who won the Presidents’ Trophy with 122 points this season, earned their first postseason series win since 1996 by defeating the Capitals in six games with a 4-3 win in overtime Friday. The Lightning took out the Maple Leafs in seven games with a 2-1 victory Saturday.

The Lightning dispatched the Panthers in six games in the playoffs’ opening round a year ago. The Panthers feel more prepared for the rematch.

“It’s going to be exciting,” Florida defenseman Brandon Montour said Sunday. “This is a team that’s had our number, had every team’s number, the last couple years. It’s always a battle against these guys. We’re up to the challenge.”

Here are five Florida players to keep an eye on:

Aleksander Barkov, center

Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak (81) and Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) go after the puck during an October game in Sunrise.
Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak (81) and Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) go after the puck during an October game in Sunrise. [ MARTA LAVANDIER | Associated Press ]

Barkov understands better than most how much this opportunity means to the franchise. Barkov, 26, has spent his nine-year NHL career with the Panthers, acquiring many accolades (including the 2020-21 Selke Trophy, given to the league’s best defensive forward), but he has yet to lift the Cup. The captain leads the team this postseason in faceoff win percentage (56.5) and had two goals and four assists in the opening round.

Memorable moment: Barkov gave the Panthers a 3-2 lead against the Capitals in Game 6 with 5:43 remaining in regulation.

Against the Lightning: Barkov scored two goals and had three assists in four games this regular season.

Of note: Barkov finished second on the team in points (88) during the regular season behind Jonathan Huberdeau (115) and led with 39 goals.

Carter Verhaeghe, center/wing

Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) battles along the boards against Panthers left wing Carter Verhaeghe (23) during an October game at Amalie Arena.
Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) battles along the boards against Panthers left wing Carter Verhaeghe (23) during an October game at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The former Lightning forward, 26, left his mark all over the series with the Capitals, setting multiple franchise playoff records. His 12 points in the series followed an impressive regular-season showing in which he had 55 points (24 goals) in 78 games.

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Memorable moment: Verhaeghe scored the Panthers’ winning goal in each of the last three games of the Capitals series, the last one in overtime of Game 6.

Against the Lightning: Verhaeghe had a pair of assists in three games this season.

Of note: Verhaeghe’s franchise playoff records in Round One included most points in a game (five in Game 5) and most goals in a series (six).

Jonathan Huberdeau, wing

Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy makes a save on Panthers left wing Jonathan Huberdeau during Game 5 of last year's first-round playoff series.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy makes a save on Panthers left wing Jonathan Huberdeau during Game 5 of last year's first-round playoff series. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Huberdeau’s 115 regular-season points were a franchise season record, and he became the first Florida player to get at least 100 in a season. He scored 30 goals — which matched his career high from 2018-19 — playing in 80 games. Huberdeau, 28, continued to elevate Florida’s power play, logging 38 points (five goals).

Memorable moment: Huberdeau’s five-point game against the Maple Leafs on April 5 put him over 100 points (102).

Against the Lightning: He had two goals and five assists in four regular-season games, including five points in a 9-3 Florida win Dec. 30.

Of note: Huberdeau was kept off the score sheet just 13 times in the regular season. Only once was he scoreless in back-to-back games (Nov. 6 versus the Hurricanes and Nov. 8 at the Rangers).

Aaron Ekblad, defenseman

Capitals defenseman Nick Jensen (3) reaches for the puck against Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad (5) during the second period of Game 6.
Capitals defenseman Nick Jensen (3) reaches for the puck against Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad (5) during the second period of Game 6. [ ALEX BRANDON | Associated Press ]

Ekblad, 26, missed the final 21 games of the regular season after suffering a right knee injury against the Ducks on March 18. Playing in the postseason, he has shown he’s still an asset. Before the injury, he hit a career high with 57 points (42 assists) in 61 games. In the first round against the Capitals, he had one goal and four assists.

Memorable moment: Ekblad had an assist on Verhaeghe’s Game 4 overtime goal against the Capitals, a win that tied the series at two games each.

Against the Lightning: Ekblad had a goal and an assist in three games in the regular season.

Of note: Ekblad missed the 2021 postseason series against the Lightning with a lower-body injury. This year against the Capitals, Washington’s Alex Ovechkin delivered a hit on him in the first minute of play in Game 6, which sent him down the tunnel for evaluation. Ekblad returned, logging 20:34 of ice time, two shots and an assist. Interim coach Andrew Brunette expects him to be available for Game 1 against the Lightning.

Claude Giroux, wing

Panthers right wing Claude Giroux (28) celebrates after scoring a goal during the third period of Game 5 against the Capitals.
Panthers right wing Claude Giroux (28) celebrates after scoring a goal during the third period of Game 5 against the Capitals. [ LYNNE SLADKY | Associated Press ]

The 34-year-old NHL veteran of 15 years had spent his entire career in Philadelphia without winning the Cup before getting traded to Florida on March 19. Giroux’s offensive talent and leadership (he went to the 2010 Cup final with the Flyers, losing to the Blackhawks, and was the Flyers’ captain from 2013 until the trade) have been assets for Florida.

Memorable moment: In the Game 6 win against the Capitals, Giroux scored the 2-all tying goal about midway through the third period (his third goal of the series) and had assists on Barkov’s 3-2 goal and Verhaeghe’s winner.

Against the Lightning: Giroux played his first three games of the regular season against the Lightning with the Flyers. He recorded two goals and three assists in four games.

Of note: Including the series against Washington, Giroux has six goals and 24 assists since joining the Panthers, who are 19-5-0 in that stretch. Seven of his 30 points came against the Capitals.

Contact Mari Faiello at mfaiello@tampabay.com. Follow @faiello_mari.

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