For hockey fans, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Former Flyers captain Claude Giroux and the Florida Panthers will meet Tampa Bay in the second round of the playoffs, a.k.a. the Sunshine State Showdown.
The best-of-seven series starts Tuesday night (TNT) in Sunrise, home of the Panthers.
Florida led the NHL with 122 points this season. Tampa Bay is the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion.
And, so, yes, this series feels more like a Cup Final than an Eastern Conference semifinal.
“People, especially in Florida, have been begging for the two teams to be contenders and to go at it,” Tampa coach Jon Cooper said. “They’ve retooled their team and brought some big names in there, and it should be a ton of fun.”
Giroux was the biggest of the “names,” and he helped Florida win its first playoff series since 1996.
During the regular season, Florida went 2-1-1 against the Lightning. Tampa knocked out the Panthers in last year’s playoffs, winning in six games.
”It is an exciting challenge,” Florida coach Andrew Brunette said. “They are what we want to be. We have an opportunity to play them again and get that chance. It has been a fun rivalry the past few years, and they beat us in the playoffs, so they’re up. We get the chance to get even.”
In recent years, the rivalry has intensified since both teams are among the NHL elite.
“They’re fun to play against, they’re competitive as hell, and I think it’s really good for hockey,” Cooper said.
Both teams needed comebacks to win their respective first-round series. Florida fell into a two-games-to-one hole against Washington, then won the last three games as Carter Verhaeghe and Giroux led the way. Tampa won the last two games to recover from a 3-2 series deficit against the Maple Leafs.
Verhaeghe, 26, had 12 points, including six goals, in the six-game series. He had the winning goal in the last three games.
Giroux, 34, acquired from the Flyers almost two months ago, finished the series with seven points (3-4). He had five points over the last two games, including three in the Game 6 clincher against the Caps.
If Florida is going to knock the Bolts out of the playoffs, it must get its power play working. The Panthers were 0 for 19 in the first round; they clicked at 24.4 percent (fifth in the NHL) during the regular season.
Tampa converted 21.2% of its PP chances in the opening round.
The Lightning got strong first-round performances from Nikita Kucherov (seven points) and Victor Hedman (six), and Central Jersey’s Ross Colton contributed three goals and a pair of assists.
It will probably come down to goaltending. It usually does.
Former Flyer Sergei Bobrovsky was solid for Florida against the Capitals, compiling a 2.79 GAA and.906 save percentage.
Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, regarded as the league’s best big-game goaltender, wasn’t at his best in the Toronto series but played well in Game 7. He had just a 3.04 GAA and .897 save percentage in the series.
Prediction: Panthers in seven, though it’s difficult picking against driven Tampa, which has its sights on the first three-peat since the Islanders won four in a row from 1980-83.