Florida vs Tampa Bay: Round 1, Free Picks, Odds & Predictions

Tampa Bay Lightning vs Florida Panthers
Florida vs. Tampa Bay, Division Semifinals, May 16, BB&T Center

A chippy end to the game did little to disguise the fact it was another dominating effort from the Tampa Bay Lightning against the Florida Panthers in this series. The Lightning do have some injury concerns after the Panthers too some extra liberties while expressing their frustration with the result, but otherwise Tampa Bay continues to look like the defending champions. Florida has been backed into a corner now and they return home for Game 5 on Monday looking to find the right formula to prolong the series and slow down the Lightning.

Game 5 (Tampa Bay Lightning lead 3-1)

May 24, 8 p.m., BB&T Center

The end of Game 4 was a bit chaotic as the Florida Panthers released their frustrations with a 6-2 loss with some chippy play. There were 68 combined penalty minutes in the third period and the Tampa Bay Lightning had two key players leave with injuries, which led to some spicy postgame comments from coach Jon Cooper. Either way, it was another dominant effort from Cooper’s Lightning squad as they look to make swift work of the Panthers on Monday to close out the NHL playoffs first-round series. Tampa Bay was clearly the better team from the outset and punished the ill-disciplined Panthers with two power-play goals on five chances on the man advantage. Florida actually held a 41-26 edge in shots, but Andrei Vasilevskiy handled all 24 even-strength shots he faced and 15 of the 17 shots Florida threw on net during its seven power plays.

I do pity Joel Quenneville right now because he has no correct answers for who should be Florida’s starting goalie in Game 5. Chris Driedger has been a mess in his two starts and Sergei Bobrovsky has been worse in his two starts in this series. Both of them have played well in relief roles, but by that point the game is so far out of hand, it doesn’t even matter. The veteran coach could turn to rookie Spencer Knight, but is it wise for Knight’s first start in the Stanley Cup playoffs to be an elimination game against the defending champions after being a scratch the first four games? And as bad as the goalies have been, what does it say about Florida’s defense that Tampa Bay’s best players are being so dominant in this series and walking all over the Panthers? It feels like the Panthers were not ready for primetime this season and the Lightning are just bullying them on the ice right now.

What is there to say about Tampa Bay right now other than the Lightning look to be in peak form at the right time. The Lightning aren’t just demolishing the Panthers, but doing so efficiently by scoring six goals on just 26 shots in Game 4 after scoring five on 31 shots in Game 3. The Lightning have scored on 14.4 percent of all their shots in this series, which is three percentage points higher than the best mark in the NHL from the regular season. The best part for Tampa Bay is that it’s the stars creating all of this offense for the defending champions after many of them missed extended time this season. After scoring a goal and adding three assists in Game 4, Nikita Kucherov is up to nine points in four games after missing the entire regular season. Steven Stamkos missed the last month of the regular season, but added two assists to his total Saturday to bring him to two goals and four assists in four games. In total, 15 of Tampa Bay’s 18 goals in this series have been scored by either Kucherov or one of Tampa Bay’s five top goal scorers from the regular season.

This series has gotten out of hand and it has quickly spiraled away from the Panthers. Florida’s lack of experience in the postseason is extremely evident right now as frustration is taking its toll on everyone. Tampa Bay is completely calm and collected as the defending champions and letting the Panthers self-destruct while cleaning up the wreckage as quickly as possible. Florida’s goaltending is a joke, its defense is far worse and the Lightning are just tearing up the Panthers in the most elegant fashion they can. Tampa Bay is going to not just win Monday night in Game 5, I expect yet another incredible blowout to end Florida’s season on its home ice. I’ll start with an easy wager on Tampa Bay to win in regulation at +145 odds on the top sports betting sites in New Jersey. Then I’ll go for the high-value payouts by betting the Lightning laying 2.5 goals for +400 odds at the top hockey betting sites in New Jersey then add on the over 4.5 goals for Tampa Bay at +325 odds.

BET ON TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING TO WIN

Game 6

May 26, TBD, Amalie Arena

 

Game 7

May 28, TBD, BB&T Center

 

Game 1

May 16, 7:30 p.m., BB&T Center

You’re supposed to throw out the records for any playoffs series, but it’s much easier to do so for this matchup between the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning. Yes, the Panthers won five of the eight games the teams played this season. Yes, Florida won the last two games of the regular season to secure home ice in this series and it won three of four from Tampa Bay over the final month of the season. But the Tampa Bay squad that will take the ice Sunday for Game 1 is far different than the one that limped down the stretch of the season and finished third in the Central Division.

The defending champions played for the last month of the season without captain Steven Stamkos, who was the team’s leading scorer with 34 points at the time of the injury. The Lightning also didn’t have Nikita Kucherov, last year’s leading scorer, for any of the regular season, yet both he and Stamkos should be in the lineup for Sunday’s Game 1. Also making their return is Victor Hedman, who missed those last two Panthers game with a lower-body injury, and his presence was certainly a reason Florida outscored Tampa Bay 9-1 in those two games. The absence of Stamkos, though, was far more impactful for Tampa Bay, which was 9-6-1 without its captain in the lineup while being outscored 46-43. During that stretch, the Lightning were also 3-5 against the playoff teams in the Central Division with two of those victories coming in overtime. Just getting Hedman and Stamkos back would help stabilize the Lightning, but the addition of Kucherov adds a whole new dimension to Tampa Bay’s offense, especially a power play that scored on 25 percent of its chances in the first 40 games of the season, but converted just 14.3 percent after Stamkos’ injury.

Everyone is talking about all the players the Lightning are returning to the lineup, but the Panthers have a fairly good scoring team as well. Florida actually scored eight more goals than Tampa Bay this season and the top-line duo of Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau is difficult to stop. Huberdeau led the Panthers with 61 points this season, with 20 goals and 41 assists, the seventh-most helpers in the league, while Barkov scored a team-best 26 goals and added 32 assists for 58 total points. However, what really made Florida pop over the final few weeks of the season was the secondary scoring from players like Frank Vatrano, Carter Verhaeghe and Alexander Wenneberg. Their contributions are why the Panthers outscored foes 56-38 over the final 14 games of the regular season when Florida won 11 times. That includes the six-game winning streak on which Florida ended the season in which the Panthers scored at least four goals in every game they played.

When it comes to betting on this NHL playoffs series, it all depends on the confidence you have in how quickly Tampa Bay’s best players can be at full strength. Stamkos hasn’t played since April 8 and Kucherov hasn’t played at all this season, and despite looking good in practice, it is different in a game. How long will it take for both players to be a major factor for the Lightning will go a long way to determining how well Tampa Bay does in this series. The Panthers enter the postseason with a lot of confidence, especially after dominating Tampa Bay twice at home to end the regular season. I’ve waffled back and forth between picking Florida to win in six games at +650 odds, the Panthers in seven games at +525 odds or Tampa Bay in seven games at +550 odds. Most of the legal sports betting sites in New Jersey are trying to push the Lightning in six games, but I can’t imagine they are able to close out the confident Panthers that easily. I’m begrudgingly picking the Lightning to win the series in seven games because of their experience and health, but I would not be surprised if the champs exit in the first round.

For the first game Sunday, I’m backing the Panthers to win on home ice, and I’m not sure it is particularly close. It’s going to take some time for Tampa Bay to round into form with everyone back and healthy, and I think the game speed and conditioning are going to be a factor for the opening game at least. The additions of Kucherov and Stamkos are vital to Tampa Bay’s long-term success, but after missing this much game action, I don’t know if it will make up the 9-1 goal difference from those last two games of the season. Luckily, the Panthers are the underdog in this game, so I’m going to bet on Florida to win in regulation at +163 odds. That combo adds another interesting wrinkle to the Stanley Cup playoffs betting by wagering on Florida to win Game 1 and Tampa Bay to win the series for +380 odds.

BET ON FLORIDA PANTHERS TO WIN

Game 2 (Tampa Bay Lightning lead 1-0)

May 18, 8 p.m., BB&T Center

The first battle of Florida in the NHL playoffs certainly lived up to the hype from an energy and excitement perspective. The teams were not afraid to throw around the body and both squads had at least 16 penalty minutes in the game, but the Tampa Bay Lightning’s power play stole the show in the team’s 5-4 win over the Florida Panthers. The action on the ice was about as back-and-forth as you’d expect from two evenly-matched teams as the leads were traded as often as the hits before Brayden Point tied the game with seven minutes left then won it in the final two minutes of regulation. If nothing else, this series will be highly-entertaining as the intensity ratchets up and we see just how desperate both teams can get about securing victory.

What has the Panthers figured out about Andrei Vasilevskiy that no one else has discovered this season? In six starts against Florida during the regular season, Vasilevskiy won just twice while posting an .898 save percentage and 3.36 goals against average. In his other 36 starts, Vasilevskiy posted a .930 save percentage and won 20 times. After scoring four times in the Game 1 loss, Florida has now scored at least four goals in each of its last four games against the Lightning goalie. That offensive success against one of the best goalies in the league is at the center of the Panthers’ chances of success after losing Sunday and needing to now beat Tampa Bay four times in six games. If Florida can consistently score three or more goals against Tampa Bay, there is hope for it, especially if the defense and goaltending come together. The decision to go with Sergei Bobrovsky in the opener made sense from a salary perspective, but he had four straight appearances with a sub-.900 save percentage before beating a shorthanded Tampa Bay squad in the second-to-last game of the season.

The concerns I had about the Lightning’s core players needing time to adjust to game speed were obviously misguided after watching Game 1. You could not tell that Nikita Kucherov made his debut Sunday in the first game of the Stanley Cup playoffs as he snapped home two goals and took a team-high five shots. Steven Stamkos had two assists in his return after a month off due to injury and Victor Hedman added three helpers after missing nearly a week with minor injuries. What we witnessed on the ice was a team that looked like it had been playing together all season without any breaks, an impressive accomplishment despite the vast history these players have with playing with each other. If Tampa Bay can continue to score as easily as it did in Game 1 then it doesn’t matter how well the defense plays behind the forwards. This version of the Lightning offense is dangerous, and the fact Tampa Bay scored on three of its four power plays should send fear down the spines of any opponent who dares take a penalty and put their team shorthanded against these savages.

I am pleasantly surprised at how much respect the top hockey betting sites in New Jersey are giving to the Panthers after their performance in Game 1. It would be easy – and somewhat lazy – to see Tampa Bay clicking on all cylinders offensively and just write off the Panthers entirely, but that is not what happened. It is clear Florida has the offensive firepower to go toe-to-toe with the Lightning, but I question if the Panthers can do enough defensively to slow down the Lightning. Florida was near the bottom of the middle in terms of penalty kill this season, and that showed in Tampa Bay’s three power-play goals. I doubt the Panthers can stop the parade to the penalty box in this series, which will mean more power-play chances for the Lightning, and likely more goals. After nine goals were scored in Game 1, I expect there will be fewer in the second game, but I’m still betting on over 7.5 total goals at +270 odds from the top sports betting sites in New Jersey. And I fully expect the Lightning to continue their strong play with a fully healthy lineup and respond with a Game 2 victory in regulation at +130 odds from the top NHL betting sites in New Jersey.

BET ON TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING TO WIN

Game 3 (Tampa Bay Lightning lead 2-0)

May 20, 6:30 p.m., Amalie Arena

After a high-scoring opener, both the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers settled into a rhythm in Game 2. It didn’t help the Panthers even the series as they scored just once on 33 shots against Andrei Vasilevskiy, leaving them in a 2-0 hole in the series as it shifts to Tampa. The Lightning jumped out to an early 2-0 lead in the first period before Chris Driedger settled into his first start in the Stanley Cup playoffs, but Florida’s offense simply wasn’t good enough to win. Now the Lightning have taken complete control of this series and have begun looking like the team that won the Stanley Cup last season and is a serious threat to repeat again this year.

The Panthers’ penalty killing was a major storyline in Game 2 as Florida held the potent Lightning to just two shots on three power-play chances. However, the parade to the penalty box is not going to be sustainable and Florida cannot afford to be assessed 18 minutes in penalties on the road if it wants to claw back into the series. The switch to Driedger for Game 2 was a smart play and the goalie helped keep the Panthers in the game after a shaky start. If Florida can hold Tampa Bay to less than 30 shots and two goals or fewer in every game, the Panthers have to like their chances. Driedger certainly outplayed Sergei Bobrovsky and deserves to start Game 3 in what will be a must-win game for the Panthers. Florida will also need a better defensive gameplan against Tampa Bay’s top-two lines because the Lightning’s stars have had too much of an impact on this series for Florida to overcome.

Perhaps the biggest question about the Lightning entering this series was just how quickly its top players would return to form after long layoffs. The answer clearly was not very long as through two games Nikita Kucherov – who missed the entire regular season – leads the team with four points (two goals and two assists). Steven Stamkos missed the final six weeks of the season and has three points in two games, including the first goal of Game 2, and hasn’t missed a beat either. The other talented players around those two forwards have settled in nicely as well and made major contributions as Tampa Bay’s top-four point scorers from the regular season all have multiple points through two games against the Panthers. If Tampa Bay’s stars continue to produce at that level, it won’t take long for the Lightning to dispatch of the Panthers.

Six times in eight regular-season meetings this year, the Lightning and Panthers combined for at least six goals. So Tuesday’s 3-1 result was certainly out of the norm for when these two teams face off. However, those more defensive games benefit the Lightning, so I expect Tampa Bay is going to try to instill that playing style Thursday in Game 3 as the series shifts to Tampa Bay. As a result, I don’t think Florida will have much room for its offense and that will result in yet another low-scoring affair. The over/under from the top sports betting sites in New Jersey is set at an above-average six goals, so there is plenty of value in sneaking under that and betting on under 4.5 total goals at +260 odds. I think the a more defensive NHL game will also result in a multi-goal win for Tampa Bay, so I’ll add on a bet at +180 odds for the Lightning laying 1.5 goals on the top hockey betting sites in New Jersey.

BET ON TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING TO WIN

Game 4 (Tampa Bay Lightning lead 2-1)

May 22, 12:30 p.m., Amalie Arena

There’s something about games between the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning this season that craziness ensues. The teams combined for nine goals in the first game of the series then scored 11 in the third game as Florida rallied to take down Tampa Bay and trim the series deficit to 2-1. The Panthers scored the only two goals of the first period before surrendering five goals in the second period to fall behind 5-3 after 40 minutes. Florida then scored twice in the third period to force overtime before Ryan Lomberg, who scored two goals and had two assists in 34 games this season, potted the winner in the extra period.

Andrei Vasilevskiy had a 2.21 goals against average and .925 save percentage this season for the Lightning, and those numbers could have been much better if not for the Panthers. Florida scored 20 goals across six games against Vasilevskiy, who had a .898 save percentage during the regular season against the Panthers. If you include the first three games of the NHL playoffs this year, the 2019 Vezina winner has a .901 save percentage and a 3.43 goals against average against Florida this year. That is a troubling trend for Tampa Bay, which has allowed Florida to score at least four goals in seven of the 11 games the two have played against each other this season. The Lightning are doing so many things well on offense, but they need to defend better and Vasilevskiy needs to be better for Tampa Bay to solidify its advantage in the series.

We just harped on how well the Panthers have played against the Lightning this year, but their defending in this series has been putrid. Florida has allowed 13 goals in this series and it cannot feel confident with either Sergei Bobrovsky – who will start Game 4 on Saturday and started Game 1 – or Chris Driedger – who was the starter for Games 2 and 3 – in between the pipes. The Panthers had a winning formula in Game 3 with a 47-31 edge in shots while forcing the Lightning to block 16 other attempts, and holding a 46-40 advantage in hits. Yet allowing five goals on 31 shots, especially with all five goals coming in one period is unacceptable and not going to win you many games in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Florida needs to find a way to stick to that gameplan and limit Tampa Bay’s opportunities, but it also needs its goalies to do their job and stop the puck more frequently.

All the rules for NHL defending champions are going out the window in this series, which makes betting on these games trickier. If I tell you to expect a lot of goals because it’s a matinee game Saturday, these teams are going to play a 1-0 nailbiter. If I tell you both teams are tightening up defensively, we’ll see another barnburner like Game 3 all over again in Game 4. The top sports betting sites in New Jersey put the over/under on this game at six goals, and I’m just embracing the jinx by betting on under 4.5 total goals at +310 odds. In addition, though, I’m going to earn some value for picking Tampa Bay to win by parlaying a Lightning win with the under 4.5 total goals wager for +550 odds from the top hockey betting sites in New Jersey.

BET ON TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING TO WIN

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Josh Walfish is an award-winning journalist who has been covering college and professional sports in the United States. He holds a journalism degree from Northwestern University and his work has appeared in the Miami Herald, Chicago Sun-Times and Providence Journal. He most recently chronicled the UMass hockey teams rise to prominence over the last two years for the local newspaper

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