The first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs features 16 teams in eight best-of-7 series, which start Saturday. Today, previews the Eastern Conference First Round between the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning.

(1A) Florida Panthers vs. (WC1) Tampa Bay Lightning

Panthers: 52-24-6, 110 points

Lightning: 45-29-8, 98 points

Season series: FLA: 2-1-0, TBL: 1-2-0

Game 1: Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET at Amerant Bank Arena (ESPN, SN, TVAS).

The Florida Panthers will try to make a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final and their first step is the Eastern Conference First Round against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Panthers, who lost the 2023 Final in five games to the Vegas Golden Knights, won the Atlantic Division in their final regular-season game Tuesday, jumping over the Boston Bruins. That earned them a date with their cross-state rivals, who were seemingly locked into the first wild card from the East for weeks.

"It's going to be great," Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. "Both teams know how to play hard, both teams have some high-end skill on it. It'll be a great battle, great for the fans."

Each team took a different route to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Panthers were the second wild card last season, clinching a berth in the final days. They then defeated the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes to reach the Final.

This year, they go in as one of the favorites from the East after the second-best regular season in their history (122 points in 2021-22). It's the fifth straight season they have reached the playoffs after making it twice in the previous 18.

The Lightning, who won the Stanley Cup in 2020 and 2021 and reached the Final in 2022, started this season without goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who missed the first 20 games because of offseason back surgery. They went 9-6-5 without him.

Tampa Bay has made the postseason 10 times in 11 seasons, but this is the first time it's been a wild card. In fact, this is the first time it made the playoffs without finishing in the top three of its division since 1995-96.

The Panthers and Lightning will meet in the playoffs for the third time. Tampa Bay won the 2021 first round in six games and swept Florida in the 2022 second round.

"It's always fireworks when we play these guys, always a good game," Panthers forward Carter Verhaeghe said. "They're an awesome team and really skilled. They have all the elements of a really good team."

Game breakers

Panthers: Forward Sam Reinhart had a breakout season scoring 57 goals, which shattered his previous NHL career high of 33 in 2021-22. He scored 27 of Florida's 63 power-play goals and was tied with forward Matthew Tkachuk with 55 even-strength points. Among those to play at least 60 games, he led the NHL with a 24.5 percent shooting percentage. He's also defensive-minded, ranking second among Panthers forwards in plus-minus (plus-29) behind captain Aleksander Barkov (plus-33).

Lightning: How could it be anyone but Nikita Kucherov? The forward has had a season for the ages, leading the NHL with a career-high 144 points (44 goals, 100 assists). He now has the three most productive seasons in Lightning history (128 points in 2018-19, 113 in 2022-23). He's the first Eastern Conference player with at least 144 points in a season since Mario Lemieux (161) and Jaromir Jagr (149) for the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1995-96. How dominant is Kucherov? He has 54 more points than Tampa Bay's second-leading scorer, Brayden Point (90).


Panthers: It's almost hard to believe that Alex Lyon and not Sergei Bobrovsky began the 2023 playoffs as the starter. Once Bobrovsky was in goal, he dominated, going 12-6 with a 2.78 goals-against average, .915 save percentage and one shutout, including a 12-game run between Game 5 of the first round against the Bruins and Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Hurricanes, when he faced 465 shots and made 438 saves to go 11-1 with a 1.95 GAA and .942 save percentage. He followed that up this season by going 36-17-4 with a 2.37 GAA, .915 save percentage and six shutouts in 58 games. His backup was Anthony Stolarz, who was 16-7-2 with a 2.03 GAA .925 save percentage and two shutouts in 27 games (24 starts).

Lightning: In a recent poll among NHL players, they were asked which goalie they would want on their team if they had to win one game. Almost half (46.92 percent) picked Vasilevskiy. And why not? In 110 postseason games, he's 65-42 with a 2.27 GAA, .921 save percentage and seven shutouts. Since the Lightning were swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2019 first round, Vasilevskiy is 50-27 with a 2.21 GAA and .924 save percentage in the postseason. When he's on his game, there may not be a better goalie in the League. He has two Stanley Cup titles and three straight trips to the Final to prove it.

Numbers to know

Panthers: The Panthers don't like allowing goals. They led the League in goals-against (2.41 per game). Their number was impressive at home, giving up 2.56 goals per game, but they were even stingier on the road (2.27). They come into the playoffs hot, finishing 5-1-1 and allowing 1.71 goals per game.

Lightning: If there is anything the Lightning know how to do, it's score goals. They were fifth in the NHL and second in the East with 3.51 goals per game. A big reason was their power play, which led the NHL (28.6 percent). and why wouldn't they with forwards Kucherov, Stamkos and Point on the man-advantage with all-world defenseman Victor Hedman and forward Nicholas Paul in the bump role? Bobrovksy and the Panthers will be put to the test in this series.

See if the Panthers can make another Stanley Cup run

X factors

Panthers: Florida started the season without injured defensemen Brandon Montour and Aaron Ekblad, but Gustav Forsling held down the fort, led the NHL in plus/minus (plus-56) and ranked ninth in shot-attempts differential (plus-444). The Panthers outscored the Lightning 15-9 and outshot them by an average of 37-25 during the regular season, when Forsling had three points (one goal, two assists). With Tampa Bay often outscoring its problems and lack of depth without injured defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, Florida needs Forsling to help dictate possession dominance early and often and lead the penalty-kill efforts against the best power play in the NHL. -- Pete Jensen

Lightning: Forward Brandon Hagel thrived whether playing on the top line with Kucherov and Point or the second unit with Stamkos, ranking eighth in the NHL in even-strength points (66). Hagel also had NHL career highs in assists (49), points (75) and shots on goal (184). But with limited production over his first two postseasons (11 points in 29 games), Tampa Bay will count on Hagel to provide more depth scoring to offset Florida's offense, which was second in shots on goal per game (33.7) behind the Edmonton Oilers (33.9). Hagel had three points (one goal, two assists) in three games against the Panthers this season. -- Pete Jensen

They said it

"It has been a crazy year, but I thought throughout it was us and Boston kind of in the driver's seat for the division. It went back and forth. For us to put up today after being down and coming back to win -- we were scoreboard watching. We knew in the third if we got a win, we would clinch it. ... It means a lot for us to get home ice." -- Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk

"They're different [this year] because they've won. Now they didn't achieve their ultimate goal, but they'd make it to a Stanley Cup Final. They've got a great coach back there and they've taken some steps forward and they went into this year and didn't miss a beat. When Game 82 ends, Florida is going to be on top, so clearly they've done something right." -- Lightning coach Jon Cooper

Will win if ...

Panthers: Tkachuk plays like Tkachuk. He proved to be the ultimate clutch performer in the run to the Final last season, and it's not a stretch to expect more of the same. Though Reinhart and Bobrovsky will no doubt be in the spotlight for Florida, Tkachuk is the one who makes this team go. And if he gets going, they will advance.

Lightning: Their top players score. When the Lightning lost the first round in six games to the Maple Leafs last season, Kucherov (one), Stamkos and Point (two each) combined for five goals. Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn combined for six (three each). If those three can get going, it would spell bad news for Florida.

How they look

Panthers projected lineup

Vladimir Tarasenko -- Aleksander Barkov -- Sam Reinhart

Carter Verhaeghe -- Sam Bennett -- Matthew Tkachuk

Eetu Luostarinen -- Anton Lundell -- Evan Rodrigues

Nick Cousins -- Kevin Stenlund -- Steven Lorentz/Ryan Lomberg

Gustav Forsling -- Aaron Ekblad

Niko Mikkola -- Brandon Montour

Oliver Ekman-Larsson -- Dmitry Kulikov

Sergei Bobrovsky

Anthony Stolarz

Scratched: Ryan Lomberg/Steven Lorentz, Tobias Bjornfot, Kyle Okposo, Steven Lorentz, Uvis Balinskis, Josh Mahura

Injured: None

Lightning projected lineup

Anthony Duclair -- Brayden Point -- Nikita Kucherov

Brandon Hagel -- Anthony Cirelli -- Steven Stamkos

Michael Eyssimont -- Nicholas Paul -- Mitchell Chaffee

Conor Sheary -- Tanner Jeannot

Victor Hedman -- Darren Raddysh

Nick Perbix -- Erik Cernak

Emil Lilleberg -- Matt Dumba

Calvin de Haan

Andrei Vasilevskiy

Matt Tomkins

Scratched: Austin Watson

Injured: Haydn Fleury (upper body), Jonas Johansson (lower body), Mikhail Sergachev (leg), Tyler Motte (lower body), Luke Glendening (upper body)

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