TAMPA, Fla. — These rivals will meet again. There’s time for fortunes to flip. But Tuesday’s result, sealed by the second intermission, followed the early season script for both sides in the Sunshine State showdown.
It goes like this: The Tampa Bay Lightning have burst past the starting line, while the Florida Panthers have stalled with smoke billowing from their hood. The Bolts have been smooth and efficient through the first two weeks, as sleek as a Porsche. The Cats? They’re more like a Ford Pinto with a busted radiator.
“There’s still a lot left in us,” said Tampa Bay center Cory Conacher after the Lightning’s 5-2 victory over the Panthers at Tampa Bay Times Forum. “We can’t get too big of heads right now. It’s the first six games of the season, and teams are still getting used to the speed of the game.
“It’s going to be important for us to stay humble and just do the little things that we know how to do right.”
The Lightning (5-1) did plenty right against their stumbling in-state foe. They scored four consecutive goals to break open a 1-all tie and hand the Panthers (1-5) a sour fifth consecutive defeat. Their performance was a blitz on blades.
This was impressive, so it’s fine to steal a breath and start studying their potential. Just six games into the 48-game free-for-all and coach Guy Boucher’s Lightning have proven to have the legs for the sprint.
The Bolts showed as much Tuesday. In more ways than one, this was a matchup of contrasts, a possible trap for the meek-minded.
Tampa Bay entered leading the Southeast Division with eight points, and Florida occupied the cellar with two. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay entered leading the NHL with 4.8 goals per game, and Florida ranked last with a rancid 1.6. (The Cats had not produced more than one since hanging five on the Carolina Hurricanes on Opening Night.)
How did the Lightning respond? They were more bully than bookworm. They reacted as any disciplined fighter would, with fists flying. They gripped the challenge by the collar — “Right now, you can’t see anything as a threat,” Boucher said afterward — and shook it until what was left of the Panthers’ will had puddled on the ice.
Want variety? Conacher (third goal) and centers Steven Stamkos (fourth), Tom Pyatt (third), Dana Tyrell (first) and Vinny Lecavalier (third) all had fingerprints on the mugging.
Want history? The triumph followed the Lightning’s 4-1-1 mark against the Panthers last season, including a 2-1 record at Tampa Bay Times Forum.
No surprise. No drama. No doubt.
“I think we’re putting full games together,” Pyatt told FOXSportsFlorida.com about the team’s emerging identity. “Last year, we would have a good period, but that’s definitely not enough. Right now, we’re putting some good periods together. We’re playing simple hockey, and we’re on the same page.”
Certainly, the same couldn’t be said for the Panthers, who have drifted like a kayak without a paddle of late. The defending Southeast Division champions scored four first-period goals in the rout of Carolina. However, they entered with four over the next 14 periods.
After Tuesday’s defeat, which marked the first time they lost five consecutive games in regulation since Feb. 2010, the Cats have been outscored 23-5 during the skid. Self-study may not be a bad idea.
“It’s obviously embarrassing to lose five straight,” Panthers defenseman Filip Kuba said. “It’s not the right time to put our heads down and feel sorry for ourselves. We got another game coming and (43) left, so we have to figure out quickly what we have to do to get ready and play better.”
There wasn’t much more they could do against Tampa Bay. The night began with a flurry, but it ended with the Panthers in a familiar funk. Starting with Stamkos’ goal 11:09 into the first period, the teams netted three scores in a one-minute, 40-second span. Florida’s deficit was manageable then, down just one goal, but the hole didn’t remain that shallow for long.
“We’re not good yet,” Boucher said with a sly smirk as he gripped the podium after his team’s fourth consecutive victory, three of which have come during an ongoing season-high, five-game homestand. “Everybody seemed to have some (worries), but not me.
“I just saw a great challenge ahead of us. I like the fact they said they were going to come out hard tonight. It made for a great challenge.”
Perhaps in the mind, yes. But on the scoreboard? Not even close.
Sure, this was only the first of five games between the rivals. Their scripts could change. No one ever said a twist isn’t possible.
After the initial glimpse, though, there are two questions: How far can the Lightning go? And how far will the Panthers fall?