When one thinks of great Floridian sports rivalries, they usually think of the Gators, Seminoles or Hurricanes.
But on Tuesday night, the Lightning and Panthers will take center stage in the Battle of Florida at Amalie Arena.
“It should be a pretty good clash,” said Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper, per the Associated Press. “They’re a really good team. They won our division last year. They’re strong on defense. They’re strong down the middle.
“They’ve had a year to win together, so they’re that much more confident in what they’re doing.”
Cooper knows of what he speaks.
Despite his club being the more successful of the two recently — the Bolts have made back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference Final, punctuated with a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2015 — the Lightning had trouble with the Panthers last season.
Florida went 4-1-0 in five head-to-head matchups, outscoring its in-state rival 16-11.
The big story this offseason, of course, was Florida refusing to rest on its laurels. Despite a franchise-best 47 wins and 103 points — and the first playoff appearance since 2012 — the Panthers literally remade their defense, overhauling the group with a new focus on puck movement.
Through two games, things look good.
The Panthers are off to a perfect start, beating New Jersey 2-1 in OT, then Detroit 4-1 on Saturday. They’ve done this minus the services of key forwards Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad, and while the new defense has yet to break through — Keith Yandle, Jason Demers and Mark Pysyk are still looking for their first points — Florida’s depth forwards have been terrific.
Jonathan Marchessault — who spent the last two seasons in Tampa Bay — leads the team with four points, while fellow newcomers Colton Sceviour (signed from Dallas) and Denis Malgin (a 19-year-old draftee out of Switzerland) have hit the scoresheet as well.
Roberto Luongo, the NHL’s reigning third star of the week, has been rock solid, posting a .957 save percentage and 0.98 GAA.
Tampa Bay is off to a good start as well, going 2-0-0 against those dame Devils and Red Wings.
The Bolts offense has been more flush than Florida’s — nine goals so far, with seven different players finding the back of the net — but they have conceded six times, with tonight’s starter (Ben Bishop) surrendering four goals on 32 shots in an opening-night win over Detroit.
Speaking of goalies, another wrinkle to add to tonight’s affair. James Reimer will make his Panthers debut, taking over for the red-hot Luongo.