Rare is the matchup in which both of Florida’s NHL teams hold playoff positions at the same time. Yet when the Lightning plays host to the Panthers on Sunday night, that’s exactly the scenario.
For the Panthers, Sunday’s game marks the end of a long road trip — which was interrupted by a few days back home in South Florida — which started in Buffalo on Jan. 5.
“It was nice to get a couple days off and recharge the batteries a little bit,” goalie Roberto Luongo said following Saturday’s practice in Coral Springs.
“We have a big game in Tampa and are looking at it as one game. We have to get back on the winning track as soon as possible. We have some distance in our division and don’t want that gap to close. We need to get back to getting some points.”
Atop the Atlantic Division since late December, the Panthers have lost their past two games, but their 18-3-1 run since Thanksgiving has put them in good position in their division as well as the Eastern Conference.
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, has bounced back from a slow start and has won five of its past six, including its past four.
“They went to the [Stanley Cup] Finals last year, so they know what it takes to win,” Luongo said. “There are a lot of good teams in our division, and we can’t take anything for granted. It’s going to be a battle, a dogfight until the end of the year.”
The Lightning came home from a similar western Canadian road trip on Friday and beat Pittsburgh 5-4 in overtime to put it in third place in the division — seven points back of the Panthers — coming into Saturday’s games.
Said Florida coach Gerard Gallant: “They are playing like they did last year. They’re a good, solid group. It’ll be a good test for us.”
The Panthers and Lightning have never met in the playoffs, a prerequisite for taking this cross-state rivalry to the next level. Neither team has been very good when the other one has been save, perhaps, for the 2011-12 season, when the Panthers won the Southeast Division and the Lightning finished third and out of the playoffs.
Florida won the previous two meetings against Tampa Bay in November, with second-year defenseman Aaron Ekblad tying the first game in the dying moments before winning the second one with a goal in the final seconds.
The Panthers won’t have Ekblad to do the damage Sunday. He remains out because of a suspected concussion sustained last Sunday in Edmonton, but the Panthers plan on winning their third consecutive game against the Lightning without him.
“Teams are trying to catch us now,” Brian Campbell said. “Now we’re the team being chased, and we have to establish some distance and win some big games. This is the place we want to be and where we’re capable of being.”
▪ Gallant was back on the ice Saturday after missing Wednesday’s 6-0 loss in Calgary to attend the funeral of his mother, Rosie, in the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island. Gallant said he wasn’t too upset with the loss to the Flames, joking that his absence was the reason.
“That game was coming,” Gallant said. “You could see it coming for the past week or so. We have a good group and sometimes a good kicking is good for your team.”
▪ Ekblad skated before Saturday’s practice and took part in the early session before leaving. He will also miss Monday’s game against the visiting Oilers. The Panthers hope to have Ekblad back for Friday’s game against the visiting Blackhawks.
▪ Steven Kampfer has filled in for Ekblad the past two games after missing a month with a knee injury sustained against the Capitals.
Sunday: Panthers at Lightning
When/where: 5 p.m.; Amalie Arena, Tampa.
TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560, WMEN 640.
Series: Florida leads 60-49-10.
Scouting report: Florida won its first game in Tampa since the final game of the 2013 lockout-shortened season, prevailing 5-4 in a shootout on Nov. 14. That snapped a four-game losing streak in Tampa.