The little brother of the Tampa Bay Lightning is all grown up and will participate in their second-ever Stanley Cup Finals tomorrow against the Vegas Golden Knights.
The 2022-23 season was a disappointing one for the Bolts, but there are lessons to be taken from the Florida Panthers that could get Tampa back on top of the throne next season.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Having a goaltender matters
The first main lesson from this run by the Panthers is that if you have an elite goaltender, you always have a chance.
It’s no secret that Andrei Vasilevskiy didn’t have a great 2022-23 campaign. His .915 save percentage wasn’t a liability per se, but it wasn’t good enough to justify his $9,500,000 cap hit. His playoffs stats were even uglier.
But as Sergei Bobrovsky is showcasing, once you establish you are a top-five goaltender, anything is possible at any moment if you can regain your form.
One could argue the fact that Bobrovsky only playing in 50 games in the regular season is paying dividends in the playoffs. Yes, part of that was a combination of being terrible along with injury. But no matter the reason, he looks fresh and is at the peak of his powers.
Vasilevskiy appeared in 60 games and admitted he didn’t feel quite right this season.
While the backup goaltender situation might be questionable, it would behoove Tampa to find a way for Vasilevskiy only to have to appear in 50 to 55 games during the regular season to allow him to be at the peak of his powers come playoff time.
Because if Vasilevskiy achieves his peak, anything is possible no matter how poorly the rest of the squad is performing.
Net front presence matters
One of the massive holes that were left behind for the Lightning when Erik Cernak was taken out of the series by Michael Bunting was no one filling the void as the physical defender in front of the net to clear out danger.
It’s hard to directly correlate why Toronto had a different approach against Florida than it did against Tampa, but the 5 v 5 heatmaps from both series paints a picture that Florida did a significantly better job of pushing Toronto to the outside.
Beyond keeping Cernak safe from dirty hits, the main lesson here for Tampa is that this offseason, they need to find a more physical presence in front of the net than what Ian Cole provided.
Trust in Tanner Jeannot
Given what Tampa Bay gave up to acquire Tanner Jeannot at the trade deadline, many Lightning fans feel like the Bolts got swindled in the deal.
His point production wasn’t great once he arrived in Tampa, and that was compounded by getting hurt at the end of the season, which limited his ability to be useful in the playoffs.
But the reason why the Tampa Bay Lightning went out and got Jeannot is that he fits the exact mold of player that is needed to go deep during the playoffs.
For the Panthers, that player is Sam Bennett. Once you get past their stars in Matthew Tkachuk and Carter Verhaeghe, Bennett is fifth on the team in points this playoff run.
More notably, Bennett is second on the Panthers this playoff run in hits, behind only Radko Gudas.
The Panthers have bullied their way past teams this postseason in a manner that isn’t too dissimilar to what the Lightning had when Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, and Barclay Goodrow formed the greatest third line of all time.
The entire reason the Lightning went all in on Jeannot is that he provides the exact archetype of a player needed to make a deep run, physical with a hint of scoring ability.
If healthy and given a full season to fit in with the system in Tampa, Jeannot can fulfill that vision.
Just get in
Above all else, the single biggest lesson the Tampa Bay Lightning can take away from the Florida Panthers is one that fans in Tampa know all too well at this point.
The 2019 playoff debacle was a lesson that it doesn’t actually matter how great the regular season is if you don’t have a physical squad to back it up once the playoffs begin.
As such, the Lightning has paced their seasons out accordingly and haven’t finished first in their division since 2019 despite three straight Stanley Cup Finals appearances.
The Florida Panthers squeaked in by one point and have shown that once you get into the dance, anything is possible.
Heading into the 2023-24 season, the moral needs to be that long as the Lightning is on the plus side of the playoff cut line, Vasy is healthy and rested, and the hard-hitting bodies for Tampa are ready to go come April, then everything is right on track for the Bolts to lift another Stanley Cup in June of 2024.