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Panthers-Lightning rivalry reaches fever pitch in first round of playoffs

Buzz in South Florida palpable, interest rising throughout state

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

Dave Andreychuk laughed when he recalled how players would feel when the word rivalry was used to describe the matchup between the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning.

"It was pushed on us, this in-state rivalry," the Hockey Hall of Famer and former Lightning captain said. "It was like, 'We have this Governor's Cup and we're going to force it down [your throat], trying to sell this in state.'"

"Well, after this year they won't have to do that. They won't have to sell it."

The Panthers and Lightning have long been considered rivals only because they play in the same state. 

Things are changing.

The two Florida-based teams are playing each other in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time. The buzz in each market is palpable, according to the people there, and the hope is this series will help create a true rivalry that can spread the word about hockey in Florida to a bigger audience.

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup First Round on Sunday should go a long way toward making it possible. The Lightning, the No. 3 seed in the Discover Central Division, rallied to defeat the No. 2 Panthers 5-4 at BB&T Center to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-7 series. 

Video: Point lifts Lightning to wild Game 1 win vs. Panthers

Game 2 is Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; CNBC, SNE, TVAS, BSFL, BSSUN)

"Every hockey fan in the state of Florida now is going to be watching the same game and I think that's a bonus," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "You're pretty much guaranteed that every TV in every sports bar will have our hockey game on. The games will be on in every rink. You can't help but notice that and that's where excitement builds. There are some bragging rights not only about moving on in the playoffs, but who is Florida's team? Fan bases go at it. It's great."

Bill Lindsay was a Panthers forward from their inaugural season as an NHL expansion team in 1993-94 through 1999 and again in 2001-02. He remembers the hockey scene in South Florida booming when the Panthers, then playing in Miami, hit it big early, going to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996.

The Lightning came in a season earlier (1992-93) but didn't win their first playoff series until 2002-03, their 11th season. They played one series in their first 10 seasons.

"We captured this city and it was on fire as far as a hockey market," said Lindsay, who still lives in South Florida and works Panthers games on their radio broadcasts. "Miami Arena was so loud, it was explosive. It seemed like there was a huge market for it. Then the dry spell hit, lots of years of losing."

The Lightning gained their footing when the Panthers were losing theirs, winning the Stanley Cup in 2004, reaching the Eastern Conference Final in 2011, the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, the conference final again in 2016 and 2018, and winning the Cup again last season.

The Panthers, who in 1998 moved to Sunrise, Florida, 34 miles north of Miami, have not won a postseason series since 1996. They made the playoffs twice from 2001-19 and lost in four games to the New York Islanders in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers last season.

"To have both the teams be really good at the same time is something that was imperative for South Florida hockey," Lindsay said. "It's something that had to happen, especially for this Panthers franchise. … I can feel this town starting to come back to where it was in the '90s. People are starting to talk about this team." 

The Panthers are the lead sports story on the local news, Lindsay said. They are being talked about and getting airtime on local sports talk radio. Ads are on busses. 

"I literally did three radio hits for them in the last day down there," said NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes, who played goalie for the Panthers and Lightning during his 11-season NHL career. "I was on the phone with my boy Dave Nemirovsky, who I played with for the Panthers. He's down there now and he was talking about how much it's bubbling. It's great for the sport."

BB&T Center was filled to its maximum capacity of 9,646 fans in Game 1, just shy of 50 percent of full capacity because of COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines.

Panthers CEO and president Matt Caldwell said 5,000 people have signed up for season tickets next season, adding it's a relatively small number but one they're proud of given the ongoing pandemic and how it has impacted where people go and how they spend their money.

"I think this kind of series, the intensity, the excitement on the ice, all the people that are in the arena are going to feel it and they're going to want to come back and experience it again," Caldwell said. "Our TV ratings are the best they've been in 20 years. The demand is already there, and now to have a rivalry and two teams and a great, popular franchise like Tampa, it's going to do great for our business side."

The Lightning want the Panthers to be successful, Andreychuk said, because a real rivalry will grow, more playoff matchups will happen, and it will fuel interest throughout the state.

"If I live in Pensacola, who am I going to cheer for?" Andreychuk said. "A lot of it was divided by the TV market. But now with Bally Sports and streaming and everybody can get every channel, the state has two teams everyone can see and there are lots of new fans that are out there that are going to decide who they want to cheer for. That is a huge factor."

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