Among professional sports teams in Florida, only two rivalries really carry much weight and have serious implications in the standings.
It’s no coincidence the meaningful cross-state rivalries are the ones that involve teams competing within the same division, playing each other the maximum number of times allowed.
On Saturday afternoon, the Tampa Bay Lightning play the Panthers for the 106th time since the rivalry got its start on Oct. 9, 1993.
Florida won that game 2-0 in front of 27,227 at what is now Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg to earn the franchise’s first victory. The Panthers have won 54 meetings between the two since.
“That’s our rivalry,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. “You get across the Everglades, and we want to pound them every time we play them.”
Tampa Bay and Florida were naturally put in the same division — like the NBA’s Heat and Magic — since Day 1. That gives those games some meaning as both teams battle for the same playoff spots.
Other professional teams in Florida don’t have such a relationship because of conference and league boundaries.
Although the Rays and Marlins play each season, the teams are in different leagues and play in the middle of the season, so there are no playoff implications.
The Dolphins (AFC East) don’t play the Buccaneers (NFC South) or Jaguars (AFC South) each regular season — although the Florida teams do meet frequently in the preseason.
When John Tortorella coached the Lightning, he said he didn’t consider the Panthers much of a rival because such feelings had to be built in the playoffs. Although the Panthers and Lightning have never met in the postseason, there has been plenty of bad blood over the years.
Being located so close to one another and playing so many times as members of the Southeast Division, tensions are bound to spill over.
“Even when I wasn’t playing for the Panthers, you would take more interest when Tampa Bay was playing Florida,” goalie Jose Theodore said. “We’re both in Florida, and they have an exciting team with good players. It’s fun to play them. It’s a rivalry that’s always building.”
George Parros and Dineen understand what Tortorella’s take is about building rivalries through tough playoff battles. Parros notes the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings never played in the postseason yet remain bitter rivals.
Although the Panthers and Lightning don’t share the same market as the Ducks and Kings do, Tampa and South Florida are close enough geographically — it’s roughly a four-hour drive from the Tampa Bay Times Forum to the Panthers’ BB&T Center — for fans from the visiting team to make a quick road trip and invade the other’s arena.
“It was always a heated game because our fans were in their rink and their fans were in ours,” Parros said about the Ducks and Kings. “It’s always a good atmosphere to play in. It’s always fun to play in these rivalry games. The geographic proximity lends itself to that. You look forward to playing in them.”
The NHL moved the start time of Saturday’s game to 3 p.m. so it could be broadcast across North America on the NHL Network — and it’s the only game going during that time as part of Hockey Across America weekend.
Viewers will find the state of Florida hockey to be in a bit of disarray as both teams are struggling and are in danger of missing the playoffs together for the fourth time in six seasons.
Although the Panthers have picked up points in six of their past seven games, Florida came into Friday tied for 11th in the Eastern Conference — two points back of the No. 9 Lightning.
Tampa Bay, which beat the visiting Panthers 5-2 on Jan. 29, has gone winless in its past six (0-5-1) and hasn’t scored more than three goals in any of those games. Both teams enter Saturday’s matinee desperate for a win — and some goals.
“They were rolling and things were coming very easy,” Dineen said. “It’s not just the games. When you are rolling, everything comes easy. They got off to such a hot start and have hit a bump in the road. [Saturday] has the makings of a very good game.”