When you talk about NHL rivalries teams like the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins, Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers, or the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburg Penguins are some of the teams that come to mind. Then you get inter-state rivalries like the New York Rangers and the New York Islanders, Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs, or the LA Kings and Anaheim Ducks. There is another rivalry however, that doesn’t get talked about; the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning. This rivalry has been going on since the Panthers inaugural year, but why hasn’t it reached the heights of other rivalries newer and older and could this be the year we finally see it become note worthy?
So let’s start with how the rivalry has been so far. The rivalry began with Lightning General Manager Phil Esposito and Coach Tony Crisp making degrading remarks about the Panthers; calling them names like the “pussycats” or the “stinking Panthers.” Dubbed the Sunshine Cup during their first meeting; included a 15 pound trophy and a $10,000 match donation from the Sunshine Network to the two teams donations of choice. Although I don’t know if an actual trophy would materialize, I can’t find any photos of the trophy, the main focus was getting eyes on the sport and fund raising. Tampa would win their first pre-season meeting, but the winner of the season meetings would be the Panthers with a record of three wins and two ties. Florida would win the series again the next year followed by a tie. We would then see the Panthers go on a 4 season series winning streak; including winning all five meetings in the 1998-1999 season and then Tampa do the same from the 2000-2001 season to the 2004-2005 season. During the 2003-2004 season the cup would be renamed the Nextel Cup Challenge, sounds like something from NASCAR, but would remain the same in practice and only be called this for one year before becoming the Governors Cup. The teams would trade of winning every couple of seasons until the 2011-2012 season where the Lightning would have another 4 series win streak, give up 2 series to the Panthers, and then win the past 3 series in dominant fashion.
Sounds exciting on paper; so why hasn’t it taken off as a big rivalry? The main reason is that the two teams have never been really good at the same time. In the early years it was the Panthers who were the better team and would take most of wins when the two teams met. Over the last decade however Tampa has been the much more dominant team as the Panthers have been stuck in mediocrity and the Lightning have become better and better culminating in last years Stanley Cup win. The other major factor is that the two teams have never met in the playoffs. This stems back to the teams not being good at the same time. Look at Toronto and Boston. That rivalry has reached new heights over the years due to them, almost inevitably, meeting in the playoffs year after year. Same with the classic Chicago and Detroit rivalry, who have met more than almost any other team regular season or otherwise.
So what’s gonna happen this year? On February 11th and then again on the 13th and 15th we will get the first three of eight meeting s between the two teams; the most of any season due to the realignment of divisions for this season. I have come to dread our meetings with the Lightning and when I first heard there would be eight games against them I felt my heart sink. Then the season started and the Panthers have been on fire. We go into this series with a record of 7-1-2, putting us in second place in the division behind who else but the Lightning. This is gonna be the first year we see a true competition between the two teams. I’m looking forward to the games against Tampa instead of dreading them. I don’t see these two teams going down hill in the recent years either. The Panthers will continue to get better and I think this series will become a true rivalry to watch. If I had to guess I think Tampa will still take this years series, but not by much. Hopefully the Panthers surprise everyone and really take it to the Lightning. As long as Florida continue the way they have been playing they are almost assured to go to the playoffs as well and who knows we could even see the first meeting of the Panthers and the Lightning in the post season as well.
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