Friday, November 24, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Fennelly: Can we get a stinking Lightning-Panthers rivalry here?

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TAMPA — It sits by its lonesome in Amalie Arena, on an end table between a couch and a chair outside Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman's office: the Governor's Cup. The crystal vase was awarded exactly one time, to the winner of the 2013-14 season series between the Lightning and the downstate Florida Panthers.

How can we forget Lightning players skating around the ice with the Governor's Cup over their heads?

"I don't think we ever really got to that point," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said with a grin.

The Governor's Cup shouldn't be confused with the Nextel Cup or Florida Blue Cup, other short-lived contrivances aimed at propping up the arid intrastate rivalry between these hockey clubs.

It's inexcusable that Lightning-Panthers hasn't amounted to anything. We're not asking for Montreal-Quebec or Islanders-Rangers. Just a heart beat, if only in the name of geography.

Nothing. Nearly a quarter-century, 122 games, including 50 Lightning wins. Nothing.

They will try again when they meet Tuesday night at Amalie. The Lightning and Panthers, both off to a 2-0-0 start, are expected to fight for the Atlantic Division crown. Maybe it's time to dust off that Governor's Cup.

"I don't even think the governor knows what the Governor's Cup is," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "There is no rivalry. There's no history. It's amazing."

That could have changed last season, when a Lightning-Panthers playoff matchup seemed a distinct possibility. The Lightning held up their end, beating the Red Wings in the first round, but the Panthers fell to the Islanders. Florida's hockey teams have never met in the postseason.

"If we get a playoff series with them, it's going to ramp it up, definitely spike the interest," Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop said.

"When the playoffs come, that's when blood starts to boil," Lightning center Brian Boyle said. "That's when emotions run high. That's when crazy stuff happens. That's when rivalries are born."

Hockey fans in this state have been standing outside the delivery room for 24 years. The Lightning joined the NHL in 1992. The Panthers entered a year later. But there are remarkably few Lightning-Panthers memories.

"I can't really think of one game or moment that jumps out," said Craig Ramsay, who has coached for both teams.

"All these years and it's a blank," Lightning co-founder Phil Esposito said.

The big problem: Last season marked only the second time the Lightning and Panthers made the playoffs in the same season. The first time was 20 years ago, when both teams made their playoff debuts. The Lightning lost to Philadelphia. Commendable effort. The Panthers proceeded to go to the Stanley Cup final.

There have been years the Lightning was good and the Panthers were awful. There have been years the Panthers were good and the Lightning was awful. And then there have been years, a lot of years, when they both have been awful. It adds up to The Rivalry That Isn't.

General rule of thumb: If Phil Esposito can't create a rivalry, no one can. In his P.T. Barnum days, Esposito played a woman in goal and said he'd put a horse in there if it stopped pucks. But Lightning-Panthers was the nut he couldn't crack, even after he helped dub Florida "the stinking Panthers."

"The stinking Panthers, right off, first year. I was trying to get it going," Esposito said.

Take the first time the Lightning and Panthers met in the regular season. Oct. 9, 1993. The second-year Lightning had moved from the State Fairgrounds' Expo Hall to the ThunderDome (now named Tropicana Field). A record NHL crowd of 27,227 attended the game. The first-year Panthers' general manager was Hockey Hall of Famer Bobby Clarke.

"So I see Bobby in the hallway before the game doing a live TV thing," Esposito said. "I snuck up behind him and kissed him on the cheek, right on TV, smooched him, and said, 'Welcome, you pussycats, welcome!' Then they went out and shut us out. Their first win ever."

Not even that could stir up a rivalry.

"I stirred as hard as I could," Esposito said. "The thing was unstirrable."

Oh, there have been occasional skirmishes, pockets of excitement. Ask Jassen Cullimore, who in his career played for both the Lightning and the Panthers, including the 2004 Bolts Stanley Cup champions.

"Whenever we beat the Panthers, Jay Feaster would come in, his face would turn red, he'd scream and go crazy," Cullimore said.

Former Lightning GM Jay Feaster confirmed it.

"I did get into it," he said. "I was the same way when I was with the Flames against the Oilers. I always thought it would be good to have a rivalry."

"It just never turned into anything," Ramsay said. "We tried to build things up. Us against them. But it always just turned into another game."

But this season might be the one. Both teams have astounding young talent. Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman … Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov. There's Panthers ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr. There's Bishop looking down the ice and seeing veteran Roberto Luongo in net.

"We're both good at the same time," said Panthers coach Gerard Gallant, who also played for the Lightning. "And we might both be good for a long time."

"Would it be great for hockey in Florida? Of course it would," Cooper said. "It would be big. Playoffs. That's what it will take. Both places packed, Alligator Alley filled with Panthers and Lightning fans going back and forth."

Both teams chasing the Cup.

No, that other Cup.

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