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Once Hot, the Lightning/Panthers “Rivalry” Needs a Serious Spark

The Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning share a home state, divisional alignment and the perks of leaving their home rinks to 80 degree-plus temperatures on the regular.

Their tenure as National Hockey League member franchises is nearly identical as well, with Tampa entering the league for the 1992-93 season and Florida one year later.

But you won’t find much evidence of a rivalry when speaking to current players from these clubs and, from members of the organizations of years gone by, what once sounded like legitimate hostilities have either fizzled into forced assertions or a longing for the good ol’ days.

It can’t hold a candle to the long-standing, emotionally charged levels of Calgary/Edmonton, Boston/Montreal or Colorado/Detroit.

It’s not likely to ever split households, a la Islanders/Rangers or Canadiens/Maple Leafs.

And, though both teams have had their share of supreme talents over the years, the odds of a superstar-driven rivalry, as in Ovechkin-Crosby/Capitals-Penguins, between the Lightning and Panthers are poor.

But there has to be something there still, right?

“You get rivalries when you play in the playoffs against each other and we obviously haven’t done that,” leveled Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier recently.

Though Lightning fans might like to snicker at the expense of their Panthers counterparts, with the Florida playoff drought set to hit a full decade should they fail to qualify again this season, the woes of the Bolts have played a big part in draining the life out of the competition between these two Sunshine State clubs too. And there are other factors as well.

But still – at least you’d think – these are the guys across the state… It has to be some kind of rivalry, even now, no?

“Yeah, you’d think,” offers Tampa Bay goaltender Mike Smith, “But I don’t classify it as big a rivalry as, like, Montreal/Toronto or teams like that. I don’t even know that it is a huge rivalry, really”

Maybe not now. But there was something there at one time. Something bigger than it is these days at least.

“We were the first NHL team in Florida,” explains Brian Bradley, who played for the Lightning from 1992-1998, “And, when they came in a year later, we wanted to show that we were the better team in the state.”

“The games were intense. When we played the Panthers, we always wanted to have a good game and when you beat them, it was always special.”

Longtime Panther, Bill Lindsay, agrees.

“When I was a part of it, it was definitely something we got geared up for. We both basically came into the league at the same time and we all wanted to start off in the right direction and be the better franchise. There was a rivalry when we played for sure.”

“We didn’t want them to beat us and they didn’t want us to beat them.”

Without superstars on either roster, it was the physicality in the early years, according to Bradley, that sparked the contests between the clubs more so than battles for playoff position.

<>“We didn’t have a Lecavalier or a Marty St. Louis,” explains Bradley. “But with guys like Paul Laus with Florida and Enrico Ciccone with us, there were a lot of battles. There was a lot of fighting.”

“Yeah,” adds Lindsay, chuckling. “There were a lot of fights. There’d always seem to be a lot of carryover and the physicality always seemed to be ramped up. That was something that came with playing two and three exhibition games with each other and eight games during the season but, with them being across the state, that definitely added to it.”

That type of physical play would continue to drive Florida’s hockey foes a bit further down the line as well.

“When I first arrived in Tampa in 1998,” former Lightning general manager Jay Feaster remembers, “There was still what I would call the last real semblance of a rivalry. The games were always heated and you could count on fights.”

The physical aspect doesn’t seem to play as big a part in these games today either, which probably has at least something to do with evolution past the latest expansion era and the decreased prominence of, ahem, “character” guys like Ciccone, Laus and the like.

While no one would equate the first few seasons of Lightning/Panthers meetings to the NHL’s classic battles, the players then still felt an added sense of importance. And, Bradley says, if they didn’t, they’d soon be reminded.

“You had to get up for those games and, you know what? If you didn’t, it was going to be a long game for you. In those first couple of shifts, you were going to get hit. They were built similar to us. We were both physical teams and we had to be ready to go.”

And, apparently, management was into the budding rivalry in its early stages as well.

“I can remember Phil and Tony [Esposito] coming to me as one of the leaders of the team,” Bradley says. “They wanted to make sure we won those games and that we came out and played hard. They made it clear. They didn’t want us to lose.”

But the players from that era have watched things whittle away to their present state. Bradley’s disappointment is evident as he admits, “I don’t know if you’d really even call it a big rivalry at this point.”

Randy Moller, Florida’s radio play-by-play announcer, who also played briefly for the Panthers in the 1994-95 season, feels some let-down at present as well but also hope for the future.

“It’s just unfortunate that both teams have not had the on-ice success at the same time. I think we’re going to see it increase as their development goes, which would be great for the fans and everybody.”

“How many games that these two teams have played against each other have been ‘must-wins’ for both?” Moller asks bluntly.

The point is valid. In recent years, there haven’t been many. In fact, none specifically come to mind.

So, is that it then? Is that the recipe to stir up tension when these clubs meet to the point where it becomes a full-fledged, heated rivalry?

“The best thing that could happen would be for both teams to get good at the same time,” says Lindsay.

“If these two teams could meet in the playoffs, it would be awesome for hockey – especially in the state of Florida – where we’re trying so hard to grow the game,” adds Bradley.

Clearly, the long-standing bad feelings that stem from just a single playoff meeting can create rivalries between clubs that don’t have the inherent added competition of those that share a home state. What it would do for Florida/Tampa Bay is immeasurable.

“Oh, that would definitely fuel the rivalry,” says Moller. “If these two teams met in the playoffs, that would do it right there.”

“A seven game series can add a lot of animosity between two teams very quickly,” Moller adds, having experienced the intensity of the Montreal/Quebec battles of the 1980s.

That, Moller recalls, “Was a war.”

In Feaster’s opinion, a playoff series between Florida and Tampa Bay isn’t necessarily an end-all, be-all requirement to get this thing going.

“They don’t have to meet in the post-season,” he says. “They both don’t have to make it, per se. But they must be battling so that the players have an added motivator to help it heat up.”

Getting into the playoffs, however, once that does happen again for either club doesn’t automatically equate to a hockey hotbed in Florida either, adds Feaster, who now serves as assistant general manager in Calgary.

“Look at the increase in kids playing hockey and interest in the sports in general after we won the Cup. I don’t think you have to win the Stanley Cup each year for there to be more interest, but the teams have to be challenging for the playoffs and you need to do more than simply qualify. We qualified for the playoffs in 05-06 and 06-07 but went out in the first round. That didn’t help fuel fan interest.”

The Lightning, with Lecavalier and St. Louis still in the fold and phenom Steven Stamkos fresh off a 51-goal sophomore campaign, are off to a 3-0 start this season and relishing in the overwhelming optimism of the Steve Yzerman/Guy Boucher era. With healthy and some luck, they look like they could be ready to take that next step as early as this season.

For the Panthers, who seem stuck in transition, having never come close to the success of their 1996 Eastern Conference championship season and missing the playoffs the last nine straight years, a postseason berth appears less likely – for now – though the future is bright with young talent sprinkled throughout their current lineup and more, namely goaltender Jacob Markstrom and defenseman Erik Gudbranson, on the way.

In the interim, while we still may be a few years away from the Cats and Bolts meeting with playoff lives on the line, every game between these clubs is another opportunity to for sparks to fly.

And it all starts once again tonight in Sunrise.

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Filed in: NHL Teams, Boston Bruins, Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche, Detroit Red Wings, Edmonton Oilers, Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Ottawa Senators, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, | KK Hockey | Permalink
  Tags: alex+ovechkin, brian+bradley, enrico+ciccone, erik+gudbranson, guy+boucher, jacob+markstrom, jay+feaster, martin+st.+louis, mike+smith, paul+laus, phil+esposito, quebec+nordiques, randy+moller, sidney+crosby, steve+yzerman, steven+stamkos, tony+esposito, vincent+lecavalier


Jon Jordan's avatar

While your snootiness does not impress, I certainly cannot disagree with either point after Saturday’s drivel.

But I don’t expect the Lightning to be labeled soft in the long haul.

Could be wrong…


Posted by Jon Jordan from Tampa, FL on 10/18/10 at 11:23 AM ET

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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.

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