State of play: Florida has two shots at the Stanley Cup this year

Getty Images / Photo illustration by Nick Roy / theScore

The night before the Lightning brought the Stanley Cup to the White House last week, Tampa Bay's Ondrej Palat flicked a wrister into the chest of Florida goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, halting play. Palat skated to the bench, emotionless about the shot and save. Blood spattered behind him.

Panthers agitator Ryan Lomberg punched Erik Cernak in the temple, and they kept fighting after the officials intervened. Cernak threw a left jab over the linesman's shoulder. Lomberg wiggled his fingers in Cernak's face. Cernak pointed at Lomberg as he left the ice. Having fanned the flames at home, Lomberg waved to the cheering crowd and disappeared into the tunnel.

"People talk about other rivalries, whether it's in Alberta or wherever," Lightning coach Jon Cooper told reporters after the game, which Tampa Bay won 8-4 last Sunday. "But don't turn your back on this one. (These are) two pretty darn good teams that want to win. They'll do anything to do it."

Joel Auerbach / Getty Images

Seriously: Don't ignore either Florida team this spring. The playoffs start Monday and the road to the Cup - in the East, at least - runs through the Sunshine State. The Panthers claimed the Presidents' Trophy and scored more goals than any team in the salary-cap era. Sixteen postseason wins separate Tampa Bay from a third straight championship.

The Atlantic Division bracket ropes the Toronto Maple Leafs into the fray. The Leafs could beat the Lightning in the first round to end a long string of early knockouts. But if Toronto falters and the Panthers oust the Washington Capitals, Round 2 would feature the second playoff edition of the Battle of Florida.

Tampa Bay's shot to become an unquestioned dynasty would be on the line. Same goes for Florida's hope to escape the Lightning's long shadow.

A playoff team for three seasons running, the Panthers haven't won a series since 1996, by far the league's longest drought. Claude Giroux was the latest big-ticket player they acquired to fix this.

Eliot J. Schechter / NHL / Getty Images

"They feel that the opportunity, the window, is right now," Ed Jovanovski, the retired defenseman who analyzes Panthers games on Bally Sports Florida, said in a recent interview. "You have an excellent season. You bring in a top-end talent like Giroux. Hopefully, that one extra guy is the part of the puzzle that can get you to the next step."

Jovanovski added: "This team has a really tough time getting through the first round. That could be, possibly, weighing on the group. But no signs have shown me this team can't fight through any adversity."

The Panthers teemed with offensive talent even before Giroux arrived at the trade deadline. He was the seventh Florida forward to eclipse 20 goals this season. The Panthers potted six-plus goals in a game (17 times) more often than they were held to two or fewer (15). When they topped Toronto 7-6 in overtime April 5, it was the second time in four days that they'd erased a four-goal deficit to win by that score.

The Giroux deal typified how Bill Zito, the Panthers' general manager, built them to contend. Florida landed its cornerstone stars - Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and Aaron Ekblad - near the top of the draft between 2011 and 2014. Then Zito deepened the lineup over the past two seasons with shrewd pickups and all-in trades.

Jovanovski played with Huberdeau and Barkov in Sunrise late in his career, when Florida scraped the bottom of the league standings. He's watched the duo ascend to rare heights: Barkov is a perennial Selke Trophy contender and Huberdeau dished 85 assists this season, the most ever by a left winger.

Jovanovski has also seen Huberdeau up his physicality, cracking back when he gets gloved in the face.

"He's not going to take shit. A top-end talent, you expect a little more attention. He'll give it back. It's good to see how that part of their games has evolved," Jovanovski said. "These guys have been together a while, and I think they're just sick of losing."

Mark LoMoglio / NHL / Getty Images

The Lightning can't relate. The reigning champs atoned for a four-game losing skid in April by pumping eight goals apiece past the Leafs and Panthers. Those outbursts helped elevate Steven Stamkos to 106 points, a career best in his first healthy campaign since 2019. Nikita Kucherov just racked up 23 points in a nine-game span, signaling, like Victor Hedman has all season, that he's at peak form.

Lightning GM Julien BriseBois' deadline focus was to replenish forward depth, a strength of the title teams that's hard to maintain under the cap. Linemates Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, and Yanni Gourde all left Tampa last offseason. The Lightning acquired Brandon Hagel and Nick Paul, who burned the Panthers shorthanded last weekend.

Championship teams need "fresh blood" in the lineup to be able to repeat, Lightning TV analyst Brian Engblom told theScore. Newcomers arrive hungry to win for the first time. Different postseasons present different challenges, but they only get more demanding.

"I've always felt it's as much about will, or even more about will, than skill to win the Stanley Cup," said Engblom, a two-time Cup champ in the 1970s with the dynastic Montreal Canadiens. "It takes everything you've got from everybody.

"Every playoff game, for me, is worth about three regular-season games. That's kind of the best way to describe it. If you're going to play 24 games in the playoffs to win it all, you do the math, and that's what it means. Can you get there emotionally often enough to win every series?"

When the Lightning bounced the Panthers in Round 1 last year, the six-game matchup was chippy and engrossing. Lomberg buried an OT breakaway to clinch a comeback win in Game 3. But Florida was at a loss to contain Tampa Bay's horde of scorers, changing goalies four times in the series.

Kucherov tallied 11 of his playoff-best 32 points against the Panthers, alternately delighting and dispiriting crowds that were capped at half capacity because of the pandemic.

Expect sellouts if the rivalry resumes this month. The Lightning want to throw a third boat parade, their signature expression of triumph. To Panthers IceDen hockey director Peter Worrell, a Florida run would substantiate that the Panthers are elite after a couple of down decades.

"The toughest part about being in South Florida is that there are so many things to do. If you're not a winning team, you get forgotten real quick," said Worrell, the retired NHL enforcer.

"After (many) years in the desert, so to speak, having the type of team they've had for the last couple of years has been nice. But I think for some people, they thought it was a mirage. This team is solidifying what they're doing."

                    

When the Panthers entered the NHL the year after the Lightning, the situation rankled Phil Esposito, Tampa Bay's first GM. Teams only got to protect one goalie in the 1993 expansion draft, not two as when the Lightning debuted. Esposito called the Florida franchise "Miami" and said his squad planned to "beat the hell out of them." On live TV, before an early preseason showdown, he tiptoed toward Bobby Clarke and kissed the Panthers GM on the cheek.

"Jesus," Clarke said, per the Sun-Sentinel. "He's a fool."

Only one '90s expansion team has won multiple Stanley Cups. That's Tampa Bay, but Florida reached the final first. Backstopped by John Vanbiesbrouck, the Vezina Trophy candidate they poached in the expansion draft, the Panthers missed the playoffs by a point in 1994 and 1995 before they seized the postseason spotlight.

The '96 Panthers were a stingy defensive club with some scoring punch. As the Eastern Conference's fourth seed, they vanquished starrier opponents. Bill Lindsay blew by Ray Bourque to ice a five-game win over the Boston Bruins. OT goals from Dave Lowry and Mike Hough powered a six-game upset of Eric Lindros' Philadelphia Flyers. Vanbiesbrouck stonewalled the Pittsburgh Penguins as Round 3 went the distance.

"Shaking hands with Mario Lemieux, (he said), 'Hey, your team played unbelievable hockey,'" Doug MacLean, Florida's first-year head coach that season, told theScore recently. "It was the thrill of a lifetime to win that in seven games.

"Nobody gave us a chance, obviously. But nobody gave us a chance in any of the series."

Although the Colorado Avalanche swept them in the final, the Panthers inspired a singular hockey ritual. Ahead of Florida's home opener that season, Scott Mellanby one-timed and killed a rat that tried to scurry across the dressing room. His two-goal game later that night prompted fans throughout the season to hurl toy rats, sometimes by the thousands, from their seats to the ice. There, attendants who were dressed as exterminators collected them in buckets.

Before the NHL banned the celebration after routine goals - Florida broke this rule twice in a period in 2016, incurring minor penalties - the rats haunted visiting goalies throughout the '96 playoffs. Curious locals gravitated to the underdogs. Jovanovski, a Panthers rookie that season, said Miami buzzed like a Canadian city.

"We became sort of the darlings of the Florida market," MacLean said. "It became absolutely crazy. People still come up to me and talk to me about the fans and what it was like in South Florida during that two-month playoff run."

Penguins goalie Tom Barrasso shelters in his net during the 1996 playoffs. David E. Klutho / Sports Illustrated / Getty Images
Scenes from the '96 playoff run. Bill Frakes / Sports Illustrated / Getty Images

The area has had little to cheer about for 26 years. No franchise that was active in 1996-97 has recorded fewer wins since than Florida. In Delray Beach, MacLean's home city 30 miles north of Sunrise, bartenders have told him they can't televise the Panthers game because they don't carry Carolina's NFL contests.

"They need a playoff run so bad to reignite the fan base. They're capable of it this year with the team they have," MacLean said. "This team is a better-skilled team than the '96 Panthers by a margin, probably. But the question will be: Do they have the character and the drive that team had? We'll see."

Other storylines will swing results for both teams. For the Lightning to get back to the White House - the pandemic kept them from visiting until last Monday - proven performers like Palat, Brayden Point, and Alex Killorn need to produce in every series. Florida hopes the following will hold up under pressure: Bobrovsky's goaltending, Ekblad's right leg - he's expected back from injury soon - and the offense that conjured goals on a whim.

"I think we gave (our home crowd) a lot of great memories in the regular season," Panthers coach Andrew Brunette told reporters recently. "Now it's time to build them in the playoffs."

Bruce Bennett, Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images

Those memories galvanize people. When Worrell started coaching Panthers-affiliated youth squads, a lot of players cited the '96 run as their introduction to hockey. When one of his youth players, now-26-year-old defenseman Chase Priskie, debuted in the NHL with the Panthers last fall, he became the first South Floridian to skate for the hometown team.

"Tampa, right now, is going through the renaissance from 2004, and then their back-to-back wins," Worrell said. "It carries people to the rink - to want to watch games, but then they want to get their little sons or daughters involved."

History will be in reach if the Lightning overcome Toronto and go further. Not even Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers three-peated as Cup champs; the New York Islanders did that last in the early '80s. Tampa Bay's staying power rivals that of those dynasties, which is quite the feat for the club the Columbus Blue Jackets swept three years ago.

Engblom brought up that 2019 series the other week, describing it as telltale. Bombing out of Round 1 wasn't desirable, but the fan reaction was.

"You could really tell that people were paying attention. They were angry," he said. "They're emotional because their team lost. When you get that emotional reaction, now you're really getting somewhere.

"And then, of course, it's followed by the two Cup wins. Everybody now is full-on sailing along. Literally, in the boat parades."

Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.

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State of play: Florida has two shots at the Stanley Cup this year
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