Why the Panthers could keep Lord Stanley in a Sunshine State of mind

For two straight years, Lord Stanley has taken up residence in the state of Florida, enjoying warm tropical breezes and income tax-free living. 

The Tampa Bay Lightning defended their Stanley Cup last year in convincing fashion, and with the midway point of the season now upon us, they are looking to become the first team to three-peat since the New York Islanders won four straight Cups in the early 1980s. 

While the Lightning have shown no signs of faltering, the team that looks most capable of stopping their reign atop the NHL is none other than their neighbors to the south, the Florida Panthers.

There are other teams making a strong case for why they could win it all, but for my money, the Cup is staying put in the Sunshine State.

The Panthers sit atop the NHL standings with 63 points, tied with the Colorado Avalanche, who won their 17th straight home game in comeback fashion on Wednesday night without Nathan MacKinnon. The Lightning are a mere two points behind.

The similarities don’t end with their records, as either the Panthers or Lightning have held the Atlantic Division lead for 96 of the 106 days this season, including every day since mid-December.

Both Florida-based teams are led by a Vezina-caliber Russian-born goaltender, with the Lightning boasting 2019 Vezina and 2021 Conn Smythe winner Andrei Vasilevsky, while the Panthers counter with the resurgent Sergei Bobrovsky, who won the award in 2017 and appears to have returned to form this year after a dip in play the past two seasons. 

Each team also has a top, minute-eating defenseman drafted at the top of his draft class who can shut down opponents but also rack up points. 

The Panthers’ Aaron Ekblad, the first-overall pick in 2014, is having a career year and is one of the early candidates to claim the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman, the second overall pick in 2009, remains a dominant force and is a sure bet to become a Norris Trophy finalist for the sixth straight season.

The Panthers round out their top four defensemen (in terms of minutes per game) with a solid group that includes Mackenzie Weegar, Brandon Montour and Gustav Forsling. The Lightning have an equally impressive corps behind Hedman, with Ryan McDonagh, Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev.   

Both teams are also blessed with elite forward groups, led by silky smooth Russian-born playmakers. 

When healthy, the Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov is among the most dynamic players in the league, while the Panthers’ Aleksander Barkov can score at a point-per-game rate, while also being generally regarded as the league’s best defensive forward. They both possess sleight of hand at a level that may not have been seen since their countryman Pavel Datsyuk skated in the NHL.

Beyond Kucherov, the Lightning are a frightening lineup for opposing goaltenders, with Steven Stamkos on fire through the first half of the season (50 points through 42 games), playoff beast Brayden Point putting up his usual strong numbers (28 points in 29 games) and perennially-underrated Alex Killorn doing more than his part (39 points in 43 games).  

Think that’s firepower?

The Panthers are averaging more than four goals per game. They lead the league with 175 goals scored and a net goal differential of plus-50. The Cats are on pace for 334 goals this season, which would set a record for goals scored in a single season by a team during the salary cap era – the most since the 319 scored by, you guessed it, the Lightning in 2018-19.

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