Last year’s cream of the crop of the regular season turned league’s punch line of the postseason, the Florida-Tampa Bay rivalry looks set to truly forge in 2019-20.
The 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning tore through the NHL for six months, dominating every team in sight (including the Florida Panthers), losing just sixteen regular-season games last season. They set multiple records for goals scored, games won, and the clear President’s Trophy winners with 128 points.
It helps when they have some of the most dominant players in the NHL. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy took home the Vezina Trophy last season. Thirty-nine wins, 2.40 goals-against-average, .925 save percentage, and twenty-eight out of the thirty-one first place votes shows how dominant Vasilevskiy is in net.
Even without Vasilevskiy, the Lightning beat the Panthers both times with backup goalie Louis Domingue in between the pipes. The 6’3″ goalie had one of his best seasons in the NHL, winning twenty-one of his twenty-six starts, a 2.88 goals-against-average, and a .908 save percentage, asserting himself as one of the best backups in the NHL.
The other Bolts player to take home silverware this season was winger Nikita Kucherov. Kucherov’s 2018-19 season could be summed up with one word: top. Top assister in the NHL, top point-getter in the NHL, top vote-getter in the Hart Memorial Trophy award, securing his first-ever MVP with 128 points (41G & 87A) in a complete eighty-two game season.
To go along with Kucherov in the forward corps are some very good supporting pieces. Captain Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and some emerging young players like Yanni Gourde and Anthony Cirelli.
The league’s top scorers are also venomous on the man advantage. The Lightning were the only team with a more superior power play than Florida’s, finishing at 28.2%, a whole 1.4% better than the Panthers.
On defense, the Lightning also have some of the best two-way defensemen in the league. Victor Hedman leads the charge with solid supporting pieces like Mikhail Sergachev, Ryan McDonagh, Erik Cernak, and newly signed Kevin Shattenkirk on a cheap one-year, $1.75 million deal.
One face that leaves the Bolts defense is Anton Stralman, who signed for the other Floridian hockey club on a three-year, $16.5 million contract. Stralman should know how to break down the Lightning, as he served a solid couple of seasons with the Bolts.
Otherwise, Tampa Bay didn’t lose too many faces from the end of last year. Forwards J.T. Miller and Ryan Callahan, who both contributed serviceable roles for the Lightning, were traded this offseason, to Vancouver and Ottawa respectively.
They were traded to help free up cap space for Brayden Point, who has yet to sign a new deal with the club. Point is coming off a career year, scoring forty-one goals and finishing twelfth in the NHL in points. The Lightning have roughly $9.38 million to re-sign the centerman.
While the Lightning did sweep the Cats last season, it would be harsh not to give the Panthers a shot at turning the tide against them this season. To do this, Florida has to use their two biggest new assets against them: coach Joel Quenneville and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
In the playoffs, the Lightning were undone by two key factors. A lack of adjustments made by head coach Jon Cooper showed serious flaws in the Lightning’s style of play, which Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella was able to expose.
The other key factor was a lock-down netminder in Bobrovsky. The Lightning scored just eight goals all series, and Bobrovsky was a huge reason for that. The mighty Kucherov was limited to just two points in three games, Stamkos scored just once, and Point was left off the scoreboard entirely.
Not to mention, Florida has the pieces for Quenneville that he wants to work with. A defensive-minded superstar center in Aleksander Barkov, a playmaking winger in Jonathan Huberdeau, and a two-way defenseman in Aaron Ekblad. For Quenneville, they’re all very comparable to the Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith type players he had in Chicago.
To call the Lightning better than the Panthers is right, but to call them unbeatable is a completely different story. For this improved Cats team, the key to beat Tampa isn’t to try to outscore them or outmuscle them, it’s to know where to beat them and to exploit that. If Columbus could do it, so can Florida.
What makes me most excited for this is that these two teams may match up as playoff foes this season. If Florida come fourth in the division and Tampa Bay re-claim their throne as kings of the Atlantic, there’s a very good chance that this matchup could be a playoff series, something that has never occurred between these two before.
If that happens, there’s a very good chance this rivalry turns into something much more than a divisional game. To me, there’s a sense of pride in the fans when these teams play, but it’s not a true rivalry.
A true rivalry brings animosity. Other in-state rivalries, like Flyers–Penguins, bring animosity amongst the fanbases. They don’t respect one another, they don’t like one another, they want to see them fail. There isn’t that same feeling when the Cats face the Bolts, partially due to the Panthers’ fanbase being, dare I say it, less into it.
The hockey market in Tampa is bigger than in Miami, but put a successful team in, and South Florida will be all over the Cats.
This rivalry really excites me for this season. The Panthers need to show their true colors in these kinds of games, there can’t be any fear when we play Tampa Bay. If we want to act like a playoff team, we have to beat other playoff teams, and there’s not many better than the Tampa Bay Lightning.
As excited for this potential rivalry as me? You’re not going to have to wait long, as the Lightning and Panthers open the season against each other, playing game No. 1 in Tampa and game No. 2 in Sunrise. The Lightning’s last trip to South Florida will be December 10th, while the Panthers’ last trip to Tampa will be on December 23rd.