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Will Panthers and Lightning finally meet in the playoffs?

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Despite playing within the same state for more than 20 years, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers have never faced each other in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This year provides one of the best opportunities for that to happen.

If the Lightning can get by the Detroit Red Wings and the Panthers can dispatch the New York Islanders in the first round, the intra-state matchup would occur in the second round. The Lightning took their first step by beating the Red Wings on Wednesday night at Amalie Arena, 3-2.

Florida will certainly have their hands full with the Islanders. New York finished fourth in the rugged Metropolitan Division that includes President’s Cup winner Washington, the surging Pittsburgh Penguins and the always tough New York Rangers.

New York finished 45-27-10, good for 100 points. They look to advance past the first round for the first time since 1993. Florida was 47-26-9, a total of 103 points and good enough for the Atlantic Division Championship.

Since winning the last of their four consecutive Stanley Cups in 1983, the Islanders have advanced to the second round only three times. The other two were in 1985 and 1987.

Coach Jack Capuano clearly has the Islanders on an upswing. His first three years were mediocre, but last season, New York finished 47-28-7, good for 100 points and a third-place finish within the division. They were eliminated by Washington in the first round.

This season marks the first time since 1981 and 1982 that the Islanders have accumulated at least 100 points.

Florida and New York match up quite well. Islander goaltender Thomas Greiss sports a 2.36 goals against average while the Panthers’ Roberto Luongo is just ahead at 2.35. Greiss is third in the league with a save percentage of .925 and Luongo is tied for seventh with .922.

New York Center John Tavares was the league’s 10th-leading scorer this year with 33 goals and 37 assists. Only one other Islander, center Brock Nelson, is in the top 50. He had 26 goals and 14 assists.

For offense, Panthers’ Coach Gerard Gallant depends on center Alexsander Barkov, the NHL’s 32nd-leading goal scorer with 28 goals and 31 assists. Jaromir Jagr, at age 44, had 27 goals and 39 assists.

In addition to solid goaltending, the successful post season teams are the ones who excel on special teams. It is in this area where the Islanders have a clear advantage.

New York had the fourth-best penalty killing unit with an 84.5 percent success rate. Florida, on the other hand, killed off 79.5 percent of their penalties, the 24th-best in the NHL.

The Panthers will need to step up their penalty killing in the playoffs, especially since they were the 10th most penalized team in the league during the season. New York was 25th in that category.

Florida had the 23rd-ranked power play, converting 16.9 percent with the man advantage. New York was successful on 18.3 percent of their power play opportunities, good for 17th.

The series opens at the BB&T Center in Sunrise. In an unusual arrangement, the teams will play on back-to-back nights on both Thursday and Friday. The Panthers were 25-11-5 at home this season, while the Islanders were 20-16-5 on the road.

The series shifts to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for games three and four on Sunday and Wednesday. New York was 25-11-5 at home and the Panthers were 22-15-4 on the road.

Is a Panthers vs. Lightning second round matchup in the cards?

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Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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