Young talent, big moves may ignite Panthers-Lightning rivalry

Lightning goalie Ben Bishop stops a shot during Tampa Bay's 6-1 win over Florida in December. The Lightning have won the season series but the teams will play again Thursday.

Robert Mayer

Separated by a four-hour stretch down the west coast of Florida and across the Everglades, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers have the geography of a natural rivalry.

In the 20 years since the teams first met, it sometimes seems as if summer sunshowers bring on more intensity.

There have been one-off moments between Tampa Bay and Florida, more often centered on talk — lots of talk — than action. There’s the occasional back-and-forth game with lots of scoring, a goaltending duel or brawl that excites fans.

Florida will always hold the first win against Tampa Bay, a 2-0 triumph at the then-Thunderdome — now known as Tropicana Field.

The Panthers were the first to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals, but the Lightning were the first to capture a Cup.

But a sustained hatred over two decades just hasn’t existed.

Most anyone involved with the NHL will say true rivalries are forged during the postseason. Yet the Bolts and Cats have yet to face each other when the stakes are higher.

In fact, they’ve never come close to such an opportunity.

Tampa Bay Lightning news

The only time both Sunshine State teams appeared in the posteason together was in 1996. In hindsight, it would have been a longshot for the fourth-seeded Panthers and eighth-seeded Lightning to meet before the Eastern Conference Finals.

Since then, the teams’ paths have wildly diverged. Florida saw its best years in the mid-to-late 1990s while Tampa Bay did not experience a breakthrough until the 2000s.

Even when the Panthers snapped a 10-year playoff drought, the Lightning, a season removed from an Eastern Conference Finals appearance, failed to qualify for the postseason.

This year, Florida Governor Rick Scott introduced the Governor’s Cup into the rivalry. But Tampa Bay had already wrapped on the season series by the time the calendar turned to 2014, capturing the season’s first three meetings by a combined score of 17-6.

At this year’s trade deadline, though, both teams took a huge steps in defining their future. And after 20 years, both seem ready to converge on the same path.

Tampa Bay shifted its focus to a more youthful offense led by new captain Steven Stamkos when it parted with Martin St. Louis, the last remaining player from its Cup-winning team.

Florida, meanwhile, secured its tandem in net for the foreseeable future by acquiring veteran goaltenders Roberto Luongo and Dan Ellis.

Florida Panthers news

Both teams share a vision in building through its blue-chip talent, which is now starting to come into the fold. For Tampa Bay, it is Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov. For Florida, it is Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad and Vincent Trochek.

When it comes to suiting up players 24 years old or younger, there is most certainly a youth movement on both squads. The Bolts have dressed 15 in that range; the Panthers, 11.

The teams wrap up the season series Thursday in Tampa. Other than Florida trying to play the role of spoiler, little is on the line in this 113th meeting.

Maybe next year, with each franchise seeing bright days ahead, that will finally change.

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