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Panthers, Lightning bigger than Florida these days

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Lightning Panthers
Noel Acciari, MacKenzie Weegar and Ryan Lomberg of the Florida Panthers battle Alex Killorn and other Tampa Bay players for the puck during a game at BB&T Center in February. The Panthers and Lightning meet again Sunday afternoon. // Photo by Roger Topalian, 21st Century Photography

The Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning have shared Florida since 1993 but rare has been the instance when anyone outside of the Sunshine State really cared when the two played each other.

Florida and Tampa Bay have rarely been good at the same time so, the national spotlight has had no reason to reach this far south.

This year is different.

The Lightning are good, as usual.

The defending Stanley Cup champions reside at the top of the NHL’s Central Division and have the most points in the entire league.

New to the party are their cousins to the south, the Panthers just two points back and hanging out in second place — in the division and NHL.

Tampa Bay’s success this season has been no surprise.

Florida being as good as it is, well, is.

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That does not mean the Panthers are resting on what they accomplished in the first half of the season.

Because, good teams don’t accept first-half accolades.

“I think we’re pleased with our first part of the year,” Joel Quenneville said.

“We expect the second half to be more competitive in the games; everybody’s familiar with one another within the division.

“There’s going to be tough games going forward as well. We just want to keep pushing ahead.”

The Panthers have two of the first three meetings between the two teams this season with Sunday being the fourth of eight.

After beating Nashville 2-0 on Saturday, the Panthers have won seven of their past nine as they continue to keep pace with not only the Lightning but Carolina as well.

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Florida has 26 games remaining and are looking like a solid playoff participant at this point in the season.

The Panthers have an 11-point lead on Chicago and Columbus which are tied for the final playoff spot in the Central.

Folks are noticing the Panthers these days.

For the first time in a long while, when the Lightning-Panthers play, it is of interest all around the NHL.

“There’s just a buzz in the room this year,’’ Chris Driedger said after Saturday’s 2-0 win over Nashville.

“We’re feeling good … there’s always a belief that we can come from behind and get the job done.”

Florida Panthers at Tampa Bay Lightning

PROJECTED FLORIDA PANTHERS LINES

FLORIDA FORWARDS

91 Anthony Duclair — 16 Sasha Barkov — 23 Carter Verhaeghe

11 Jonathan Huberdeau — 21 Alex Wennberg — 70 Patric Hornqvist

77 Frank Vatrano — 27 Eetu Luostarinen — 74 Owen Tippett

19 Mason Marchment — 55 Noel Acciari — 94 Ryan Lomberg

FLORIDA DEFENSEMEN

52 MacKenzie Weegar — 5 Aaron Ekblad

42 Gustav Forsling — 7 Radko Gudas

3 Keith Yandle — 6 Anton Stralman

FLORIDA GOALIES

72 Sergei Bobrovsky

60 Chris Driedger

Scratches: F Vinnie Hinostroza, F Juho Lammikko, D Markus Nutivaara

Injured: D Noah Juulsen (upper body)

Taxi squad: D Kevin Connauton, D Riley Stillman, F Brett Connolly, G Philippe Desrosiers

Florida power play (23/93 24.7% — 11th in NHL)

Florida penalty kill (73/90 81.1% — 11th in NHL)

PP1: Sasha Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Patric Hornqvist, Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle

PP2: Alex Wennberg, Frank Vatrano, Mason Marchment, Carter Verhaeghe, Gustav Forsling

PROJECTED TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING LINES

TAMPA BAY FORWARDS

18 Ondrej Palat — 21 Brayden Point — 37 Yanni Gourde

17 Alex Killorn — 71 Anthony Cirelli — 91 Steven Stamkos

19 Barclay Goodrow — 9 Tyler Johnson — 20 Blake Coleman

14 Pat Maroon — 79 Ross Colton — 7 Mathieu Joseph

TAMPA BAY DEFENSEMEN

77 Victor Hedman — 44 Jan Rutta

27 Ryan McDonagh — 81 Erik Cernak

98 Mikhail Sergachev — 52 Cal Foote

TAMPA BAY GOALIES

35 Curtis McElhinney

88 Andrei Vasilevskiy

Tampa Bay power play (29/100 29% — 2nd in NHL)

Tampa Bay penalty kill (87/103 84.5% — 6th in NHL)

PP1: Alex Killorn, Bryaden Point, Ondrej Palat, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman

PP2: Patrick Maroone, Yanni Gourde, Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev, Tyler Johnson

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