TAMPA — The term rivalry isn’t thrown around loosely in hockey circles, though for the past three decades the sport has tried to manufacture one between the Lightning and their in-state neighbors to the south, the Panthers.
It hasn’t stuck.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper has a high bar for a team to be considered a rival.
What about the Blue Jackets, who bounced a record-setting Lightning team from the playoffs two years ago in a first-round sweep and then stood in Tampa Bay’s way in the first round again last year before the Lightning beat them in a hard-fought five-game series?
“We played them twice in the postseason,” Cooper said, shrugging. “I just don’t sit here and consider them a rival.”
What about the Bruins, who have had their fair share of meaningful games with the Lightning over the years as a former Atlantic Division foe but have a much deeper league history?
“Are we rivals with them? Maybe a little bit more,” Cooper said. “But I think Boston’s had a deep history of rivals in this league for years.”
So the Lightning could use a rival, and the Panthers have always seemed like a logical match. But since both teams entered the league in the early 1990s, the Lightning have been to the playoffs almost twice as much as the Panthers (13 to seven). This is the fourth time they’ve been to the playoffs in the same season.
They’ve never played each other in the postseason until this year. The teams meet in the first round, a best-of-seven series that opens Sunday night at the BB&T Center in Sunrise.
“I would say (the Panthers are) a geographic rival, there’s no question about it,” Cooper said. “Are the games heated? Yes, but we’ve never really been in a situation with them like what’s happening now. So will this probably create something? I hope it does, because I think it’s good for the game.”
That the teams haven’t been rivals hasn’t been from lack of effort. The Lightning began play in the league in 1992, and the Panthers followed a year later, breaking ground in nontraditional hockey markets. The Lightning seemed to always be like a big brother, sometimes a bully of one.
Leading up to their first regular-season meeting in 1993, Lightning co-founder Phil Esposito mockingly called South Florida’s new team the “pussycats.” Coach Terry Crisp called them the “kittycats,” drawing the ire of then-Panthers general manager Bobby Clarke.
The Governor’s Cup trophy, a crystal vase that was created to drum up excitement in the series, was awarded just one year, in 2013-14. Since then, it has gathered dust in the Amalie Arena organizational offices. Before it, the Sunshine Cup and the Nextel Cup Challenge were equally forgettable ploys to create a rivalry.
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After typically playing four games against each other a season, this year’s coronavirus-prompted division and schedule changes offered eight regular-season meetings between the teams, including their last two of the regular season after the Lightning and Panthers had been locked in as first-round playoff opponents.
“I think playoffs help, having those playoff series, having one team move on, having an outcome from there,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “But we did just play them eight times this year, so there’s a lot of plays that you remember and things that have happened and wins and losses.”
The Lightning have won two Stanley Cups and built an annual Cup contender. The Panthers had more immediate success, going to the Cup final in their third year of existence, 1995-96, but they haven’t won a playoff series since.
But this season’s Panthers are special. Built through savvy moves by first-year general manager Bill Zito and honed by coach Joel Quenneville, a three-time Stanley Cup-winner with the Blackhawks, Florida has become a confident team.
Maybe it’s because of their frequent meetings this season, or the timing of them, but the Lightning and Panthers have developed some disdain for each other. Before the last two regular-season games in Sunrise, forward Pat Maroon said the Lightning wanted to make the Panthers think, “Holy (crap), we’re playing the Tampa Bay Lightning.”
When told of that statement last week, Panthers defenseman Radko Gudas, who spent three seasons in Tampa Bay from 2012-15, couldn’t help but smirk behind his beard. “Yeah, I don’t think that’s going to happen. I don’t think we’re going to say that,” he said.
Both teams hope this series can help continue to build the game statewide.
“You look at (the Lightning’s) body of work over the last 10 years, consistently in the playoffs, obviously they won the Stanley Cup last year, but that’s a franchise we’ve always tried to emulate,” said Panthers president and CEO Matthew Caldwell. “I think now we’re ready to really compete with them both on and off the ice.
“We’re excited that we have this opportunity to play them in the playoffs. I think it’s going to do wonders for us, and it’ll be great for them to have a true rival.”
Caldwell has high hopes that this series be a boon for business and the sport.
Local TV ratings for the Panthers on Bally Sports Florida were the highest in nearly two decades this year in the regular season and a 67 percent increase over last year. The Lightning’s local TV ratings on Bally Sports Sun were up 14 percent over a year ago, even despite a dispute with service carriers that has limited the number of households able to watch.
Maybe a rivalry finally will happen organically rather than being forced.
“It’s good for all of us,” Cooper said. “It’s a long time coming, and I think we should all relish it. I think we should all enjoy this.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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