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Panthers/Lightning playoff matchup would ignite rivalry

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The Tampa Bay Lightning have what should be a natural geographic rival in the Florida Panthers. They are both in the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference.

Shouldn’t this be a rivalry where checking opponents into the bench or five-minute fighting majors are part of the fabric of each game? Yes, but it isn’t yet.

This could, and should change. The two teams have played each other 118 times since their first meeting in the 1993-94 season.

None of those 119 games have come in the playoffs. That is where rivalries are made, especially in hockey.

In 2013, John Fontana wrote an article for SB Nation: “Twenty years later, still waiting for a rivalry between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers.” Fontana wrote the rivalry “seems dead, and it’s hard to believe it’s ever had much of a pulse.”

Little has changed over the last two years. Former Lightning Captain Vinny Lecavalier has the recipe to create greater intensity and, well, a bit of hatred.

“You get rivalries when you play in the playoffs against each other,” said Lecavalier at the time, “and we obviously haven’t done that.”

There is clearly an opportunity for the teams to meet in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The biggest question seems to be whether the Lightning can get there.

Tampa Bay sits in the seventh position in the Eastern Conference thanks to a recent three-game winning streak. The Panthers are on an extended run of good play.

Florida is second in the East to the Washington Capitals, who are  the best team in the conference up to this point. Monday’s overtime loss in Vancouver snapped a 12-game Florida winning streak. Florida has not lost a game in regulation in more than a month.

They are led by the ageless Jaromir Jagr, who at 43 is somehow showing some of the skills he had when helping Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins win Stanley Cups in the early 1990s. Most of the current Panther roster was not even born when he broke into the league.

Florida is ninth in goals scored with 118, but second only to Washington in goals allowed with 92. Roberto Luongo is even better in goal than he was during his first stint in south Florida with a 2.08 goals against average.

The Panthers are on an extended road trip that stops in Calgary on Wednesday. In concludes at 5 p.m. Sunday with a game against the Lightning at Amalie Arena. It will be the third meeting between the teams with Florida winning both previous games 1-0 and 5-4 in a shootout.

Let’s hope Sunday will be a preview of a playoff matchup and what should become a full-fledged rivalry.

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at [email protected]

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