The first 2021 Stanley Cup playoff match-up, Tampa Bay Lightning versus Florida Panthers, was set up on 7 May when the Lightning were defeated by Dallas.
This marks the first time in NHL history that these teams will play each other in the postseason since Tampa Bay entered in 1992 and the Panthers in 1993. It has been a close and hard-fought battle between the teams this season, with the Panthers having a slight advantage, with five wins in eight games.
With how this match-up has shaped up this season, I would still give the slight advantage to the Lightning due to them having Andrei Vasilevskiy and Victor Hedman, arguably the best at their positions, and returning Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos for playoffs. These players have missed games in some of the match-ups, so with a fully healthy squad, things could be different.
Though Florida did make some nice additions in Nikita Gusev, Brandon Montour and Sam Bennett, their goaltending hasn’t been comparable to Tampa’s and they are without Aaron Ekblad. The Panthers outscored the Lightning 31-24 in their season series and 9-1 in the final two games, so Florida have the edge and momentum heading into Round 1 that should begin next week. We’ll see how this definite entertaining showdown plays out.
Carolina Hurricanes play Nashville Predators in Round 1 after the Hurricanes have taken six from eight games in the series thus far before they clash in the playoffs. Carolina had won the first six meetings before dropping their final two games to solidify Nashville’s postseason hopes. Carolina did outscore Nashville 24-17 in what has been a very tight and low-scoring season match-up, even though the Predators handled Carolina in the final two games, with a final combined score of 8-1.
The hope for the Preds is that Juuse Saros can steal them some games as elite goalies tend to do, and he has been elite this year – he’s the largest reason they’re in the postseason. With a fully healthy Carolina squad, this will be a hard team to overcome.
The consecutive wins against Carolina could give Nashville some more much-needed momentum heading into the match-up, as the Predators have been fighting for a playoff spot much longer than the Hurricanes and have already been playing playoff-style hockey.
The Columbus Blue Jackets are moving on from John Tortorella. He has coached in Columbus for six seasons now, and this year is the first that the team hasn’t advanced to the postseason. After what happened the past two seasons, knocking out a massive favourite in Tampa Bay and defeating Toronto in the play-in series, the future seemed very promising.
Though Columbus is a hard place to get free agents to sign in, there was a bunch of young talent that was integrated into the line-up this season, and considering Tortorella’s track record, they could’ve easily battled and played a solid defensive game and wear teams down. That didn’t seem to happen, and they finished last in their division and shipped off who they had hoped would be the future No. 1 centre for years to come. Sure, they had injuries as well, but so did many teams, and several overcame that and had great seasons.
A big knock on Tortorella is how he treated star players, sitting them and scratching them to try and teach them lessons in what seemed like a flex of his power. This was definitely a part of why Pierre-Luc Dubois wanted out, and it was plain to see how it affected Patrik Laine and Max Domi since arriving in Columbus. You want to give your team the chance to win every night by icing the best line-up and match-ups possible, and it doesn’t look good to always be benching top players and burying them.
Some would say he’s a great coach, but how he coaches is not for every player, and his tactics seem a bit outdated, as seen by the players’ coaches who consistently put up results, like John Cooper (Tampa Bay) and Paul Maurice (Winnipeg).