Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos will be in the Tampa Bay Lightning lineup for Game 1 against the Florida Panthers in the Stanley Cup First Round at BB&T Center on Sunday.
Kucherov missed the regular season following hip surgery Dec. 29. Stamkos was out for the Lightning’s last 16 games with a lower-body injury. He scored 34 points (17 goals, 17 assists) in 38 games.
“It’s extremely tough to jump back right into playoff hockey, whether you’ve missed a month or missed the whole season,” Stamkos said. “There’s no imitating a game-like situation until you get thrown into the fire. All you can do is fall back on how you prepared for that moment.”
The Lightning and Panthers are playing each other in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time. Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup last season. Florida last won a playoff series in 1996, when it reached the Stanley Cup Final.
The Panthers won five of eight games (5-2-1) against the Lightning during the regular season.
“They’re getting a lot of key pieces back and they’re top players, but I think we just have to get on them early, play our game,” Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau said. “We know what we can do and that’s what we’ve got to do.
Teams that win Game 1 are 490-222 (68.8 percent) winning a best-of-7 NHL playoff series, including 7-1 in the first round last season.
Here are 3 keys for Game 1:
1. Quick adjustments for Kucherov, Stamkos
They’re back and that means the Lightning almost are whole for the first time this season. But Kucherov hasn’t played since Game 6 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final on Sept. 28, and Stamkos has been out since April 8.
Getting their first few shifts out of the way and feeling the pace of the game, and getting bumped and hit by players not on their own team, will be essential to them getting their timing back.
They will be playing in the top-six forward group and on the first power play, so it’s not like the Lightning are going to slowly work them in.
“Try to slow down the game as much as I can, use my skill and my head to think the game and make the plays,” Kucherov said. “I’ll adjust to the speed as the series goes on.”
2. Bobrovsky’s start
Sergei Bobrovsky will be the Panthers starting goalie but his playoff track record hasn’t matched his regular season success as a two-time winner of the Vezina Trophy voted as the best goalie in the NHL.
He is 12-21 with a 3.13 goals-against average and .902 save percentage in 38 postseason games (34 starts).
But Bobrovsky’s best series in his NHL playoff career came with the Columbus Blue Jackets against the Lightning in 2019, when he went 4-0 with a 2.01 GAA and .932 save percentage in four games, allowing eight goals on 117 shots as the Blue Jackets swept the best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round series.
Bobrovsky was 3-2-0 with 3.23 GAA and .879 save percentage in five games against the Lightning in the regular season.
“He’s in the right place,” Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. “I think he’s had a balanced workload this year. He’s fresh. He’s ready. His attitude has always been in the right place, but this is a great test for him and for us, and we know what goaltending means to your team’s success.”
3. Hedman’s impact
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman missed the last two games of the regular season with a lower-body injury that might necessitate offseason surgery, according to Sportsnet. Tampa Bay lost both games, against the Panthers, 5-1 and 4-0.
Hedman is Tampa Bay’s most important skater because he plays the most minutes on the team (25:03 per game in the regular season), and in all situations. He’s one of the key factors in leading the Lightning’s rush game and stopping the opponent’s rush game.
“I’m not going to speculate on injuries,” Hedman said. “This is the time of year when you put a lot of things aside and you just focus on the game that’s ahead of you.”
Lightning projected lineup
Ondrej Palat — Brayden Point — Nikita Kucherov
Alex Killorn — Anthony Cirelli — Steven Stamkos
Blake Coleman — Yanni Gourde — Ross Colton
Pat Maroon — Tyler Johnson — Mathieu Joseph
Victor Hedman — Jan Rutta
Ryan McDonagh — Erik Cernak
Mikhail Sergachev — David Savard
Scratched: Christopher Gibson, Spencer Martin, Fredrik Claesson, Luke Schenn, Ben Thomas, Alex Barre-Boulet, Gemel Smith, Daniel Walcott, Mitchell Stephens, Andreas Borgman, Taylor Raddysh, Boris Katchouk, Cal Foote
Injured: Barclay Goodrow (upper body)
Panthers projected lineup
Carter Verhaeghe — Aleksander Barkov — Anthony Duclair
Jonathan Huberdeau — Sam Bennett — Owen Tippett
Frank Vatrano — Alex Wennberg — Patric Hornqvist
Ryan Lomberg — Noel Acciari — Mason Marchment
Gustav Forsling — MacKenzie Weegar
Markus Nutivaara — Brandon Montour
Keith Yandle — Radko Gudas
Scratched: Kevin Connauton, Spencer Knight, Noah Juulsen, Nikita Gusev, Juho Lammikko, Matt Kiersted, Eetu Luostarinen, Lucas Wallmark, Aleksi Heponiemi, Grigori Denisenko, Sam Montembeault, Philippe Desrosiers, Anton Stralman, Brady Keeper, Scott Wilson, Cole Schwindt
Injured: Aaron Ekblad (leg)
Tampa Bay did not have a morning skate. … Goodrow, a forward, is expected to miss at least one week. … McDonagh will be back in the Lightning lineup after missing the last two games of the regular season because of an upper-body injury. … The Panthers will have every player on their active roster available.
NHL.com independent correspondent Alain Poupart contributed to this report.