Rematches on tap in 2nd round
Florida Panthers deadline addition Brandon Montour may not have had a rooting interest in Game 7 between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night.
Many of his teammates who got eliminated by the Lightning were happy to see the back-to-back defending Stanley Cup champions win to become their next opponent.
“I think a lot of guys wanted to play this team,” Montour said Sunday. “It’s always a battle against these guys, and we’re up for the challenge and everyone’s excited in there.”
Lightning-Panthers is one of two second-round series that are rematches from last year. In the Western Conference, the top-seeded Colorado Avalanche face off against the St. Louis Blues they swept out of the playoffs in the first round in 2021.
“We’ve got to focus on now,” Blues coach Craig Berube told reporters Saturday. “Yeah there’s motivation, for sure, but you’re in the playoffs. You’re trying to win. What more motivation do you need?”
Motivation isn’t a problem for Carolina and Edmonton after also moving on to the second round. The Hurricanes will face off against either the New York Rangers or Pittsburgh Penguins, while the Oilers could get the first Battle of Alberta playoff series since 1991 if the Calgary Flames beat the Dallas Stars in Game 7 Sunday night.
Just like last time, Florida has home-ice advantage. It didn’t matter much because Tampa Bay won the first two games in Sunrise on the way to knocking out the Panthers in six.
The Sunshine State rivals split their four meetings during the regular season.
“People especially in Florida have been begging for the two teams to be contenders and go at it,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said in Toronto after Game 7 against the Maple Leafs. “They’ve retooled their team and brought some big names in there and it should be a ton of fun. They’re fun to play against, they’re competitive as hell and I think it’s really good for hockey.”
Montour is far from the only player who wasn’t part of the series last year. The Panthers added forward Sam Reinhart last summer and acquired defenseman Ben Chiarot and longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux at the trade deadline, while the Lightning signed Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and brought back defenseman Zach Bogosian before the season before getting deeper at forward in March with Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel.
“These were the kind of matchups that I was excited about making the move down here,” Reinhart said. “It brings out the best and the intensity out of both teams.”
This was the first matchup of the second round to get locked in after Colorado swept Nashville and St. Louis beat Minnesota in six. It also could be the feistiest, especially in the aftermath of Avalanche center Nazem Kadri concussing Blues defenseman Justin Faulk with an illegal check to the head in the series last year that prompted an eight-game suspension.
Kadri is having a career season, the Blues have already dealt with a series of injuries on their blue line and no one has forgotten that hit.
“You want to win any series,” said defenseman Nick Leddy, who is one of a few St. Louis newcomers along with forward Brandon Saad, Pavel Buchnevich and Alexei Toropchenko. “At the end of the day, playoffs are the best part of the year and we get another great crack at it.”
Saad played for the Avalanche last season and had three goals to help beat the Blues. Now Berube is more worried about Norris Trophy finalist Cale Makar and Colorado’s big guns at forward: Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog.
There are some similarities to the Wild in style of play, but Minnesota’s skill players don’t have this kind of size.
“That’s the difference,” Berube said. “You’re talking 230-, 225-pound guys that are really good skaters, they’re strong guys. ... You want to be physical on them, but there’s going to be times where you’re outmatched physically at times.”
Berube said his team would need to defend hard and also score some goals. The Avalanche know the Blues have plenty of depth offensively.
“It’s a different attack because it’s not just one line that you really have to focus on,” Colorado defenseman Devon Toews said. “They’ve got a full 12 forwards up there that can really score. It’s going to take all four of our lines and all six of our D to stop that and slow it down and then create our offense off of it.”