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2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Florida Panthers Can Escape Shadow of the Lightning Today



Florida panthers
Florida captain Sasha Barkov shakes hands with Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper after the Lightning swept the Panthers in 2022. The Panthers would like to go through another handshake line tonight in Tampa. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

TAMPA — Yes, the Florida Panthers have beaten the Tampa Bay Lightning more than any other team in NHL.

It just has not happened when it counted most.

Today, the Panthers have the opportunity to escape the large shadow cast by their cross-state rivals as they go for the sweep in their best-of-7 first-round playoff series.

Florida may be 77-51-19 with 10 ties during the regular-season against Tampa Bay, but it is 0-2 in the playoffs against the Lightning.

The Lightning has also brought the Stanley Cup back to the Sunshine State three times in its history, most recently in consecutive years in 2020 and 2021.

Former Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella, who won the Lightning’s first Stanley Cup in 2004, used to scoff at attempts to create a rivalry between the two teams.

If it was going to happen, Tortorella said, it would happen naturally and it would happen due to what happened on the ice if and when the two ever met in the playoffs.

It looks and feels like a rivalry now.

This is the third time in the past four postseasons that Florida and Tampa Bay have met.

The Panthers, which has been to the Stanley Cup Final twice in their 30 years, would like to finally get one over on the Lightning.

They have that chance today.

Florida holds a 3-0 playoff series lead on a team for just the fourth time in its playoff history — and third in the past year.

The Panthers have only swept a playoff foe once, and that came in the 2023 Eastern Conference finals.

Florida’s players and coaches, despite prodding from the media, have not mentioned the ‘sweep’ word.

They have walked around it, with coach Paul Maurice noting that the Panthers had a chance to sweep the Maple Leafs in the conference semifinals last year and did not.

Florida won that series in 5 games.

Losing to the Lightning today would not be the end of the world for the Panthers what with Game 5 scheduled for Sunrise on Monday.

But it would give the wounded Lightning some life.

This is, of course, a team that knows what it takes to win having gone to the Cup Final three straight times before losing to the Leafs in 7 last year.

Florida also now knows what it takes to win pressure-filled games after last year’s run to the Final.

Save for about a 10 minute stretch to start the second period of Thursday’s 5-3 win, the Panthers have dictated the pace of play in this series and have made the Lightning try and fight through it.

Even though the three games have been close — Florida held a 2-goal lead in Games 1 and 3 before the Lightning closed the gap late — the Panthers are the better team.

That much is obvious.

We wrote here before this series started how the Panthers did not duck the Lightning coming into this postseason.

The Panthers knew, deep down, to get where they wanted to go, they had to go through Tampa Bay to do it.

The Lightning are a dragon the Panthers need to slay.

The Panthers are better than the Lightning right now, and have been for some time.

Today they have a chance to prove it — and finish this series with an exclamation mark.

If not, well, see you on Monday.

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