The Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers have rarely been among the top team in the Eastern Conference at the same time, which has made it tough for the two geographical rivals to foster a significant rivalry on the ice.
It is possible that could change this season. Second place in the Southeast Division is on the line Sunday when the Lightning travel to BankAtlantic Center to face the Panthers. Both teams sit on 14 points, and the winner of this contest will be two shy of the Washington Capitals for first in the Southeast.
Only once in the two franchise’s young histories have both Florida-based clubs reached the postseason. The Panthers made a surprise run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996, while the Lightning were kicked out in the first round by Philadelphia. Since that season the Lightning have progressed – claiming the Cup in 2004 and reaching the conference finals last season. Florida has qualified for the playoffs only twice since that magical run and have not won a series.
The Panthers could be in the midst of a revival this season. General manager Dale Tallon made wholesale changes in the offseason, and Florida has been an improved team in the early stages. Even better, goaltender Jacob Markstrom looks like a future star, and Panthers fans eagerly await the arrival of potential franchise cornerstone Jonathan Huberdeau, who could help make the Panthers a more permanent fixture among postseason contenders.
One of the team’s new pickups, forward Tomas Fleischmann, has four goals and eight points in the past six games, and the Panthers are 3-1-2 in that span. He struggled mightily in the postseason for Washington in 2010 and missed several months with a blood clot problem, but Fleischmann has 32 points in 34 games for Colorado and Florida since leaving the Capitals.
Steven Stamkos dominated the NHL in the first half of last season, and he might just be getting warmed up to repeat the feat. Stamkos had a hat trick Friday night to help Tampa Bay defeat Chicago, and he now has nine goals – one behind Toronto’s Phil Kessel for the League lead.
The Lightning made “The Leap” into contention last season, but struggled at the start of this campaign. Tampa Bay lost five straight at one point, but the Lightning have now won five of seven and could climb has high as sixth in the East with a victory against the Panthers.