Lightning-Panthers: Can We Get a Stinking Rivalry Already?

TAMPA, Fla.- It still sits in Amalie Arena, all by its lonesome: the Governor’s Cup. The crystal vase was awarded exactly one time, to the winner of the 2013-14 season series between your Tampa Bay Lightning and the downstate Florida Panthers.

How can we forget Lightning players skating around the ice with the Governor’s Cup over their heads?

“I don’t think we ever really got to that point,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos once said with a grin.

The stage-prop Governor’s Cup shouldn’t be confused with the Nextel Cup or Florida Blue Cup, other short-lived contrivances aimed at propping up the arid intrastate rivalry between these hockey clubs.

Anyway, the Lightning focused, especially last season, capturing, the other Cup. You know, Stanley.

Even so, Lightning-Panthers beg for oxygen. And it might finally have room to breathe

Monday night at Amalie, the Panthers spanked the defending Cup champs 6-4, pouncing on near countless Tampa Bay mistakes to beat the Lightning in the rubber match of a three-game set after the teams split in Sunrise. The Monday win pulled Florida within a point of first-place Tampa Bay in the new-fangled Central Division.

The champs have three regulation losses this season. Two have come against Florida. The Panthers are on the Lightning’s tail. It’s about damn time.

“Huge,” said Panthers goaltender Chris Driedger, who got the win Monday. “They are the best team in the league and we just beat them two out of three.” 

Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said, “As defending champs, we’re going to have a target on our backs. An in-state team is going to be gunning for us, for sure.”

“Against teams that have that skill set, they will burn you, you’re playing with fire,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

Has the flame been ignited?

NHL set-up this season might fuel this thing. The constricted 56-game schedule relies solely on divisional play, with teams playing division foes eight-time, meaning there are five Lightning-Panthers games left. Not only that, but the first two playoff rounds will be within the division, meaning there’s a chance that the Lightning and Panthers could finally collide in the playoffs, something that has never happened. Even a COVID-emptied arena might hum over that. 

“Rivalries get born in the playoffs,” Lightning founder Phil Esposito said.

Hockey fans in this state have been standing outside the delivery room forever.  The Lightning joined the NHL in 1992. The Panthers entered a year later. But there are remarkably few Lightning-Panthers memories. No, not even the Governor’s Cup helped.

“I don’t even think the governor knows what the Governor’s Cup is,” Cooper once said. “There is no rivalry. There’s no history. It’s amazing.”

It doesn’t help that the teams have only made the playoffs in the same year twice. The first time was in 1996 when both the Lightning and Panthers made their playoff debuts. The upstart Lightning lost in the first round. The upstart-ier Panthers made the Cup finals.

Everything else is one long, dull blur.

There have been years the Lightning were good and the Panthers were awful. There have been years the Panthers were good and the Lightning were awful. And then there have been years, a lot of years when they both have been awful. It adds up to The Rivalry That Isn’t.

General rule of thumb: If Phil Esposito can’t make a rivalry, no one can. It was Esposito who dubbed Florida the “stinking Panthers” when they hit the league.

“The stinking Panthers, right off the bat,” Esposito said.

Not even that could stir a rivalry.

“I stirred as hard as I could,” Esposito said. “The thing was un-stirrable.”

But this season might be the one. The whole hockey world knows that champs, 10-3-1, are a playoff lock and loaded: Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Andrei Vasilivkey, with the injured Nikita Kucherov in the wings for the postseason. Florida, 9-2-2 has superb talent, too: forwards defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle, forwards Jonathan Huberdeau, and Aleksander Barkov. And there’s veteran goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who in 2019 led Columbus to a stunning first-round playoff upset of the record-setting Lightning.

Throw in the winning pedigree of Florida coach Joel Quenneville, who has won the Cup three times, including 2015, when his Chicago Blackhawks held off Cooper and the Lightning

The time has come. Let’s start the stinking rivalry already. Yes, it would be even better with fans. Playoffs. That’s what it will take. One team with a target and one team filled with hunters. Both of them chasing the Cup.

No, the other Cup.

Sorry, Governor

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