Florida Panthers’ Rivalry with Tampa Bay Ready to Reach New Heights

SUNRISE, FL - SEPT. 26: Noel Acciari #55 of the Florida Panthers tangles with Mikhail Sergachev #98 of the Tampa Bay Lightning at the BB&T Center on September 26, 2019 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)
SUNRISE, FL - SEPT. 26: Noel Acciari #55 of the Florida Panthers tangles with Mikhail Sergachev #98 of the Tampa Bay Lightning at the BB&T Center on September 26, 2019 in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images) /

After a tightly-contested preseason series that featured big hits and animosity, the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning open their season against each other on Thursday.

In years prior, this game has never been able to truly be pitched as a household rivalry, despite the little distance between the two. There are plenty of other rivalries that are more recognized, such as the California teams facing each other, Vancouver playing Calgary or Edmonton, or New York’s teams facing off.

Interestingly, this game should be watched by a lot more of the NHL than just the people in Florida. As eyes turn to the new season, this is one of, if not the best, opening matchup on Thursday night.

Moreover, the two teams are fresh off facing each other, and those games weren’t necessarily exhibitions. For preseason hockey, the games featured a lot of physical play, fights, huge hits, scrums in front of the goal, and injuries, which now has both teams ready to go at each other.

For the Tampa Bay Lightning, it’s about superiority. They’ve dominated this series for the last three seasons and have clearly asserted themselves as not only the best in the state but one of the best in the league.

These are the kind of games that the Bolts cannot afford to lose. Their goals are much loftier than the Cats’, and why wouldn’t they be? Jon Cooper’s Lightning are better than Florida at almost every position on paper, and most other teams in the league.

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With certified stars like Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Steven Stamkos, and Victor Hedman complimented by top young talents like Brayden Point and Mikhail Sergachev, they need to be one of the best teams in the league.

Last season, the Lightning were just that, breaking the record for most points in a season. For how it ended – being swept in round one by the Columbus Blue Jackets – they should have some extra hunger this season.

They want to prove it was a one-off loss, and the only way to erase a moment like that is to perform better when it matters. Case in point, Tampa Bay are certain they want to challenge for a cup in 2019-20.

The Florida Panthers’ mindset is much more ridden on motivation rather than standard. They come into these games as the underdog regularly. Even when the Panthers were significantly better than the injury-riddled Lightning squad in 2015-16, Tampa were seen as the favorites.

As the games in preseason went on, Florida began to turn that underdog mindset into a more physical brand of hockey. While they are loaded, the Panthers aren’t exactly the strongest team in the land, so getting into their heads with physical play seemed to work.

Riley Stillman, in particular, lowered some huge hits in the last two games. These hits led to Lightning players like Kevin Shattenkirk and Mathieu Joseph stepping up for their teammates.

During the second home game, the Panthers pulled Aleksander Barkov in the 2nd period as a precaution for injuries. Barkov had picked up a small injury, but he is 100% for Thursday’s opener.

Brett Connolly, on the other hand, should be playing in game one. Connolly picked up an injury in the same game as Barkov, missed a team practice, missed the final preseason game (which he was supposed to play in), and just recently said he would be okay to go for Thursday night.

The Panthers even called up Anthony Greco to replace Connolly just after sending Greco down, which showed that the team knew Connolly shouldn’t have played in that last game.

In that last preseason outing, there featured many hits, including some from MacKenzie Weegar and Stillman. There were multiple scrums in front of the creases after play had stopped, a combined 50 hits between the sides, and five penalties. All of this in a 1-0 game that meant absolutely nothing.

Off the back of that, this is a game that is going to mean a lot to both teams. These two could be meeting in the playoffs as soon as this season, and to win these games gives a sort of mental advantage that they can ride when playing in the future.

With all that, this is a game that should finally be able to become a must-watch event for all of the NHL. There’s a newfound hatred for each other, with one trying to lay claim to the crown while the other boasts having it.

This is a game that will see sold-out crowds at both Florida venues. Both supports, both home and away will be out in full force, creating playoff-style atmospheres at each game.

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Now, it’s on the players to keep their same energy and physicality. To truly be a rivalry, there needs to be a sense of passion and animosity in every shift, every hit, and every shot. It’d be wrong not to look forward to this matchup when looking at a calendar.