The Tampa Bay Lightning will play the Florida Panthers in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Tampa Bay (36-15-3) and Florida (35-14-5) are tied for second in the Discover Central Division. The teams will be the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds from the division, with the higher seed having home-ice advantage for the best-of-7 series.
Florida is 3-2-1 this season against Tampa Bay, the defending Stanley Cup champion. The teams finish the regular season against each other Saturday and Monday.
“It probably makes [our approach] easier in the sense we know them and they know us,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “Oftentimes when you get into playoff series, the Game 1’s are kind of that … like the feel-out game. I say that in a sense because you can only do so much on video, but until you’re in the trenches you don’t know exactly how the game is going to go and the matchups, etc.
“With playing them so many times, and playing them two times before the playoffs now, it’s like there’s no secrets. You know the players, and we’ve played them so many times it’s almost — I don’t want to say it’s easier, because nothing in the playoffs is ever easy — but I think guys know what to expect a lot more than if you’re not playing a team.”
A start date for the playoffs has not been announced.
Center Brayden Point (four goals, two assists), forward Ondrej Palat (one goal, five assists) and defenseman Victor Hedman (one goal, five assists) each scored six points against the Panthers this season. Center Tyler Johnson scored four goals. Andrei Vasilevskiy was 2-2-0 with a 2.78 goals-against average and .916 save percentage; Curtis McElhinney was 1-1-0 with a 4.58 GAA and .830 save percentage.
Center Aleksander Barkov (one goal, five assists) scored six points against the Lightning this season, and center Frank Vatrano (four goals, one assist), forward Patric Hornqvist (three goals, two assists) and forward Jonathan Huberdeau (two goals, three assists) each scored five points. Sergei Bobrovsky was 2-2-0 with a 3.79 GAA and .854 save percentage; Chris Driedger was 1-0-1 with a 3.48 GAA and .860 save percentage.
Entering Friday, Tampa Bay was led by Point (48 points; 23 goals, 25 assists), Palat (45 points; 15 goals, 30 assists), and Hedman (44 points; nine goals, 35 assists).
Center Steven Stamkos and forward Nikita Kucherov are expected to return for the playoffs. Stamkos, the Lightning captain, has been out since April 8 because of a lower-body injury, and Kucherov has not played this season because of offseason hip surgery.
Vasilevskiy (31-8-4, 2.10 GAA, .928 save percentage in 40 starts) leads the NHL in wins and is tied for third in shutouts (five). McElhinney was 4-5-2 with a 2.91 GAA, .879 save percentage and one shutout in 11 games entering Friday.
Huberdeau leads the Panthers with 59 points (19 goals, 40 assists) in 54 games, Barkov has scored 56 points (26 goals, 30 assists) in 48 games, and center Carter Verhaeghe has scored 35 points (17 goals, 18 assists) in 42 games. They are among the eight Panthers skaters with at least 10 goals.
Bobrovsky is 18-8-2 with a 2.97 GAA and .904 save percentage in 30 games (29 starts); Driedger is 13-6-3 with a 2.17 GAA, .923 save percentage and two shutouts in 22 starts; rookie Spencer Knight is 4-0-0 with a 2.32 GAA and .919 save percentage in four games (three starts).
The teams have never played each other in the playoffs.
“For instance, [the Columbus Blue Jackets], where we hadn’t played them very often and then we played them in the playoffs,” Cooper said. “Last year we only played them once in the regular season before playing them in the playoffs (a five-game win in the Eastern Conference First Round).
“Florida, I feel like it’s been a ton of games, so that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ line really fits, but we know what to expect.”
Tampa Bay, which qualified for a fourth straight season, defeated Blue Jackets, Boston Bruins, New York Islanders and Dallas Stars to win the Cup last season.
Florida lost to New York in four games in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
NHL.com independent correspondent Corey Long contributed to this report