Yes it is an exhibition game between the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning.
At this point, does it matter? I think we’re all just ready to see some kind of hockey.
It has been almost five months since the Panthers were on the ice against another NHL team.
On March 9, Florida went to St. Louis and put on a defensive clinic, blocking 23 shots in a 2-1 victory over the defending champion Blues.
The following day, the Panthers practiced in north Dallas, gearing up for a game against the Stars.
The Panthers were feeling pretty good about the way they had been playing and were just a point out of the playoffs with 13 games remaining.
On March 11, the team had a day off. Their season would not continue.
We all know what happened next. When Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 before a game in Oklahoma City, the NBA shut things down.
The NHL would follow suit the following day.
On March 12, instead of playing the Stars, the Panthers were told to come on home. And stay there. The NHL hoped to put things on hold for a couple of weeks and hope the virus slowed.
Weeks turned into months.
The Panthers, and the NHL, eventually returned for training camp on July 13 and now, they are ready to formally get back to the business of hockey.
And that’s where we are today.
On Wednesday, the Panthers and Lightning renew their in-state rivalry in a strange place.
Sure, these two teams have played each other throughout the state of Florida over the years.
Never have they played outside of the Sunshine State.
Wednesday, the Panthers and Lightning square off in Toronto — as in Ontario.
According to the Panthers, this is the fifth time Florida and Tampa Bay have played each other in an exhibition game away from their normal arenas.
All of those games — whether it was Orlando (2018, 1996), Estero (2013) or Lakeland (1993) — have been within the state limits.
This is an exhibition game in all of its glory as both teams hit the ice trying to get a feel for game-like action.
The two teams have been practicing for weeks but now they get a chance to see if they really have their game legs.
Florida coach Joel Quenneville said he is approaching Wednesday’s game with some degree of seriousness.
Although defenseman Aaron Ekblad will not play, expect a grand majority of Florida’s regular lineup to be on the ice.
“We are not going to be preoccupied with what Tampa is doing in that game technically,’’ Quenneville said on Monday. The Panthers did not practice on Tuesday.
— FOX Sports Panthers (@FOXPanthers) July 28, 2020
“I think for both teams, the motivation is to come out of it clean-and-neat and be ready to go for the first game. It is a game where you can work on special teams, pace of the game. It is not the same flow you have seen the past couple of weeks. We get a few extra guys to see as well.
“But the bottom line is let’s make sure we are ready to play after that game. You should get something out of it as well.”
For the Panthers, once Wednesday’s tilt is concluded, it is Game On.
Their season hangs in the balance with what happens next.
On Saturday, the Panthers face the Islanders in the first of a best-of-5 series which will determine which team moves on to the Stanley Cup playoffs and which one heads home for another few months away from the ice.
Tampa Bay has another mindset when it comes to Wednesday.
While coach Jon Cooper wants to see what his team looks like against a familiar opponent, his Lightning are already IN the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Following Wednesday’s game, the Lightning will have three round-robin games against Boston, Washington and Philadelphia which will determine overall seeding for the playoffs.
“We had four months to tweak our game a little bit and try some things,’’ Cooper said after Tampa Bay’s first practice in Toronto on Monday.
“It’ll be nice to play some other teams because it’s natural the guys aren’t physically as engaged going against their own teammates. You think about it, everybody says this is a really short training camp, but in a regular training camp, yeah the time’s longer but you’ve also probably played four exhibition games by now and we haven’t done any of that.
“So looking forward to playing some other teams and getting some game footage there to see how our game’s rounding out.”
Right now, the Lightning are the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference behind the Atlantic Division champion Bruins.
If that seed holds, the Lightning would face the winner of the Panthers-Islanders play-in series.
So, Wednesday could be an advance screening of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
How 2020 that would be, eh?
The Lightning and Panthers finally meet in the postseason — and the series will not be held in Tampa and Sunrise, but in Toronto. No fans criss-crossing the Alligator Alley for games but a series in an empty arena in Canada.
At this point, that will have to work.
Wednesday: Florida Panthers vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (exhibition)
When, where: Noon; Scotiabank Arena, Toronto
TV: Fox Sports Florida (local); Sun Sports (Tampa region), NHL Network (national)
Potential lines (Florida)
Frank Vatrano/Aleksi Saarela-Sasha Barkov-Evgenii Dadonov
Jonathan Huberdeau-Erik Haula-Mike Hoffman
Lucas Wallmark-Brian Boyle-Brett Connolly
Mark Pysyk-Noel Acciari-Colton Sceviour
Brady Keeper/Josh Brown-MacKenzie Weegar
Anton Stralman-Riley Stillman
Keith Yandle-Mike Matheson
Season series: Tampa Bay won 3-1