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Eastern Association |  Battle of Florida

Eastern Association | Battle of Florida

Florida Panthers vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

Sixteen points separate the Panthers, leaders of the Atlantic Division, from the Lightning, the first club drafted. But Tampa Bay is arguably the division winner's most formidable opponent. The absence of goalkeeper Andrei Vasilevskiy in the first half of the season and the slow departure of the stars in attack, with the exception of Nikita Kucherov, explains the Lightning’s sixth place in the Eastern Conference standings. Tampa Bay still has the core of winning two Stanley Cups with Kucherov, Hedman, Vasilevskiy, Point and Stamkos still in place, and they are in their prime.

Unfortunately, the Lightning can't expect defenseman Mikhail Sergachev to return before mid-May, but this team has maintained one of the best records in the NHL without him since January. Kucherov is the National League's leading scorer with 144 points. The point reached 46 goals. Tampa Bay has the best power play performance in the regular season with a 28.6% success rate, but the Panthers rank sixth in penalty kills with a 82.5% success rate.

The Panthers are now achieving success in the qualifiers with a surprise participation in the final last year. They also have elite players up front in Sam Reinhart, 57 goals, Matthew Tkachuk and Aleksander Barkov. Sergei Bobrovsky continued his momentum from last year's playoffs with a 36-17-4 record, a 2.37 GAA and a .915 save percentage.

Players to watch

Tampa Bay : In a recent NHL Players Association poll of the league's hockey players, Andrei Vasilevskiy largely beat his teammates in choosing the best goaltender for a seventh playoff game.

Photo by Chris Young, Canadian Press Archives

Andrei Vasilevsky

Florida: Although Reinhart and Tkachuk had more points in the regular season, Aleksandar Barkov is the Panthers' key player, a center capable of excelling in all facets of the game.

Under the radar players

Tampa Bay: Anthony Duclair, who was acquired from the San Jose Sharks for a pittance, has 15 points in 17 games since arriving in Tampa and plays on the first line with Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov.

Florida: Taken off waivers from the Carolina Hurricanes in 2021, Gustav Forsling is one of the most underrated defensemen in the NHL. He has 39 points this season and is averaging 22:09 plays, a minute more than Aaron Ekblad.

Image by Michael Dwyer, associated press archive

Gustav Forsling

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