Even as hockey leagues all over the world take a hiatus, the Last Word on Hockey team is still devoted to publishing quality content in the absence of live sports. Such begins a new series: the NHL Rivalry Breakdown.
Each article will take a look at two longtime rivals and break down how the rivalry came to be, how the teams stack up against each other currently, and how the matchup may look down the road. This edition of the NHL Rivalry series looks at the battle of Florida between the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Past Rivalry
The NHL rivalry between the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning is only a rivalry because of geography. If these two teams were in different states, then there wouldn’t be a rivalry.
Both teams have rarely been good at the same time. The Lightning came into the league in the 1992-1993 season, and the Panthers joined them a year later. They have been in the league together for 26 completed seasons and only twice have they both made the playoffs at the same time. They both made it in 1995-1996 and twenty years later in 2015-2016, but they didn’t face each other. It is hard to build an NHL rivalry without meeting a team in the playoffs.
It is interesting to note that the team Tampa and Florida have played the most is each other. They’ve played 138 games with Florida having a slight edge with 66 wins and 158 points, Tampa has had 62 wins and 147 points. Both teams have collected the most amount of points against each other than any other opponent.
Without both teams being competitive at the same time, there hasn’t been a reason for hatred to build between them. With the current division playoff structure, that might end sooner rather than later.
Florida: Lots of Goals
Fans who enjoy high scoring games must enjoy watching the Florida Panthers this season. The Panthers are one of the NHL’s most dangerous teams offensively. They’ve scored the sixth-most goals this season, shoot the sixth most amount of shots per game, and have the league’s tenth best power play. However, they give up the sixth-most goals in the NHL. Their defence allows the tenth most shots on goal, and they have the league’s tenth worst penalty-kill. If anything the Panthers are entertaining.
Here is Florida’s projected lineup when healthy.
There is a lot of offensive skill. Barkov and Huberdeau are two of the best players in the league at their positions. They are also Florida’s two leading scorers. Supporting them is Hoffman and Dadonov. Both players were on their way to 30 goal seasons before the NHL stoppage. Acciari, Vatrano and Connolly were all going to score above 30 points to provide excellent depth scoring.
On the back-end, they have five defencemen who were going to break the 20 point mark and Ekblad and Yandle broke the 40 point mark. So they have lots of scoring options.
Need to Prevent Goals to Win
Even with all the scoring, Florida may not make the playoffs. The Panthers are currently seventh in the Eastern Conference Wild Card race. If they miss the playoffs, it will be the fourth straight year they will not make it since winning the Atlantic division in 2016.
The Panthers’ issues are on defence and goaltending. Their defensive issues are shown through the number of shots they give up. Only two defencemen on the team, Aaron Ekblad and Mackenzie Weegar have over 50 Corsi percentage. They are the top pair, so the other two pairs need to play better.
Goaltending has also not been good. Sergei Bobrovsky signed a deal that puts his cap hit at 10 million dollars a year. For all that money, he has a .900 save percentage and 3.23 goals-against average to show for it. That is unacceptable. Chris Driedger, who is making 850 thousand dollars, is outplaying Bobrovsky. He has a save percentage of .938 and a goals-against-average of 2.05.
To be fair to the goalies, the Panthers have given up the tenth most high danger chances in the league. But Florida’s goalies have the second-highest save percentage for those types of shots. If they (Bobrovsky specifically) can stop the easier shots, then the Panthers will be in a better position. And if head coach Joel Quenneville can correct the defence as well, then the Panthers are a playoff team.
Tampa Bay: The Definition of a Powerhouse
The Tampa Bay Lightning have everything. They score the most goals in the NHL this season and they’ve allowed the tenth fewest goals. Their goaltending duo of Andrei Vasilevskiy and Curtis McElhinney have put Tampa ninth in the league in team save percentage. Therefore, the Lightning are top ten in goals, goals against and save percentage.
Here is the Tampa Bay Lightning’s projected depth chart if everyone is healthy.
In Florida, it is the “Suns out, Guns out” season for most of the year. That is the way that both of these Florida teams play. Both sides have their big guns shine and score a lot of goals. Wouldn’t a rivalry be fun?
The Lightning have an embarrassment of riches. Their top winger is Nikita Kucherov, who might be the most dangerous winger in the NHL. He scored 100 points two seasons ago, scored a ridiculous 128 points last year, and he was on pace for 96 points this season. He is centred by Steven Stamkos, who has scored the second-most goals in the NHL during the past decade. The Lightning have twelve players with 30 points or over this season. They were also on pace to have six players with at least 20 goals.
Defensively, they are good too. Tampa has allowed the 12th fewest shots on goal per game, and have allowed the fifth-fewest high danger chances. They have two elite defencemen in Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh. Hedman is in the conversation as the best NHL defenceman and won the Norris Trophy two years ago. McDonagh finished eighth in Norris voting last season. Those two are anchors on the blueline.
The Lightning have been a perennial Stanley Cup contender since they made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015. However, they have never found a way to get back to the Finals. They lost in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals to the eventual champion, Pittsburgh Penguins, in 2016. An injury-riddled season kept them out of the playoffs in 2017. In 2018 they lost in seven games again in the Eastern Conference Finals to the eventual champion Washington Capitals. And after tying an NHL record with 62 wins last season, they got swept in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
They are great this season too. But will Tampa be able to win the cup? The NHL season is postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and no one knows when/if the NHL will return this year. If they don’t, it is another year gone by for the Lightning without a Stanley Cup.
The immediate future could produce a fun playoff series if they could ever meet in one. The strengths of both teams are their offences, and both sides have elite goalies in net. Just because Bobrovsky is not strong this season doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of being a beast in the net. He struggled last regular season and then swept the Lightning with the Blue Jackets in the playoffs. Lots of offence and strong goaltending will lead to some exciting action.
As for the future of the teams, both are bright.
For all the success they have had, Tampa has a vast collection of young players. Anthony Cirelli is already a Selke candidate at 22-years-old. Mathieu Joseph and Mitchell Stephens can become solid bottom-six players for the Lightning. Alex Barre-Boulet and Taylor Raddysh could bring some youth into Tampa’s top six.
The defence is where Tampa shines. Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev already play top-four minutes on the Lightning, and neither of them is 23-years-old. They will also add top prospect Cal Foote into the mix in a few years.
For the Panthers, they have a few good forward prospects. Owen Tippet leads the Panthers AHL team in scoring with 40 points in 46 games. He is known as a great goal scorer. Centre Henrik Borgstrom has had a disappointing year in the AHL with 23 points in 40 games this year after scoring 18 points in 50 games in the NHL last year. He still projects as Florida’s second-line centre in a few seasons as a playmaker. Forward Grigori Denisenko was great for the Russians at this year’s world juniors with nine points in seven games. He also projects as a playmaker.
Both teams probably have three-to-five years left with their current cores. Florida is a bit younger than Tampa, so their window might be open for a little longer. However, the Lightning has a more well-rounded prospect pipeline. With their history of drafting well, Tampa could keep their window open for longer. The Sunshine State teams look like they have bright futures with young teams. Hopefully, the Hockey Gods will do us all a favour and let us watch a playoff series between these two teams sooner rather than later. Then we can have a proper NHL rivalry in Florida.
That does it for this edition of the NHL Rivalry Series Breakdown. Please stay tuned for Tuesday’s edition of the NHL Rivalry Series.
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