Florida Panthers

Panthers-Lightning playoff pairing would boost in-state rivalry

Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad (5) takes down Tampa Bay Lightning center Brian Boyle (11) as the puck skips away during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, March 24, 2015, in Tampa, Fla.
Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad (5) takes down Tampa Bay Lightning center Brian Boyle (11) as the puck skips away during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, March 24, 2015, in Tampa, Fla. AP

The Panthers and Lightning have been on-ice rivals since the first time they played in 1993.

But there’s always been something missing from the rivalry.

A few years back, then-Lightning coach John Tortorella said he didn’t think about the Panthers all that much.

Truth is, he said, this so-called rivalry would never amount to much unless there was a lot of bad blood shared between the two.

For that to happen, Tortorella explained, the two desperately needed to face off in a winner-take-all playoff series.

“I can’t imagine if both of us had to play in a playoff series,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “That’ll be the next step in the state of Florida really jumping on board.”

Tampa Bay put a damper on Florida’s playoff hopes this year with its 4-3 win Tuesday night.

The Panthers were trying to pull to within three points of Ottawa for the final playoff spot, but Ryan Callahan’s goal with 2:28 kept Tampa’s long home divisional winning streak going and prevented the Panthers from picking up any ground.

Florida coach Gerard Gallant knows a little about the rivalry between the two teams as he was in on it from the beginning.

Gallant came to the Lightning for its second NHL season.

Tampa Bay left the tiny Expo Center on the Florida Fair Grounds after its first season and moved across the bay to play in the spacious St. Petersburg Sundome — now the current home of baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays.

The Panthers, meanwhile, were an expansion team playing in a new but cramped arena near downtown Miami.

On Oct. 9, 1993, the two met for the first time in St. Petersburg with an announced 27,227 on hand.

A few days later, the Lightning returned to Miami Arena — where it had played a home game just before H. Wayne Huizenga was granted an expansion team — and drew just 13,059.

The two teams have played each other 116 times — not counting countless exhibitions — more than any other team in their histories.

Florida’s first game in its new home in Sunrise came against the Lightning in 1998.

A playoff meeting, however, has yet to happen as both teams are rarely good at the same time. This year, however, is not one of those times.

If Florida was somehow able to make it into the playoffs — the odds are pretty small now — it’s possible Tampa Bay could be the first-round opponent.

The Lightning, after all, is one point back of Montreal for most points in the league with 99. A few more wins down the stretch and Tampa Bay could bring the NHL’s President’s Trophy to the Sunshine State for the first time.

“I think it’s good when teams come down here and know they’re going to have a battle with Tampa Bay and Florida. That’s good for both of us,” Gallant said.

Tampa Bay is obviously ahead of the Panthers these days, not only in the standings but in its standing in the community.

Tuesday’s game drew more than 17,000 to Amalie Arena with the Lightning averaging 18,793 per game — good for 10th in the league. The Panthers, meanwhile, are averaging 11,190 which is the league low.

“Winning solves a lot of problems, at the gate, on TV, on the radio, in the newspapers,” Cooper said. “When you are winning you seem to be pushed to the top story.

“The turnaround of both of these franchises, us last year and continuing this year, and Florida clearly this year has turned around their team. It’s a lot of fun.’’

Said Gallant: “They’ve really turned it around down here. They have big crowds every night, they have a good, young hockey team and we are trying to do the same thing. This year we’ve taken a big step. We’ve gotten better and have some great, young hockey players, and we want to turn it around, too. The first thing is winning and playing hard, and I think we are doing that so far.”

▪ The Panthers left Tampa following Tuesday’s game and flew straight to Toronto where they will play the sinking Maple Leafs on Thursday night.

Toronto has lost nine of 10 since beating the Panthers in the Luongo/Al Montoya injury game on March 3 and has lost six in a row in regulation since beating Buffalo in a shootout.

THURSDAY: PANTHERS AT MAPLE LEAFS

When, where: 7:30 p.m., Air Canada Centre, Toronto.

TV, radio: FSFL; WQAM 560.

Series: Maple Leafs lead 34-29-7.

Noteworthy: The Panthers are trying to take the season series for the second year in a row as they have won two of the first three. Since 2011, Florida has won nine of 14 against Toronto.

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