SUNRISE — The last time the Florida Panthers played the Tampa Bay Lightning in a game that counted, their Presidents’ Trophy-winning season was ended abruptly with a 4-0 sweep in the second round of the playoffs.
“It was surreal coming here this morning,” Florida general manager said following the end of the Panthers’ 58-18-6 season.
“We were supposed to be playing today.”
The Panthers were riding a fast-paced offensive scheme that netted them the first 300-goal season since 1995-96 but it crept to a screeching halt once they had to face Tampa Bay.
Florida scored just three goals against Lightning franchise goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and were swept in embarrassing fashion.
This was a familiar road block for the Panthers.
Just over a year ago, they lost in six games to Tampa Bay in the first round during the Lightning’s second-straight Stanley Cup run.
In 2022, they made it to their third-straight Stanley Cup Final before falling to the Colorado Avalanche in six games.
“They’re Stanley Cup Champions for a reason,” now former Panthers coach Andrew Brunette said. “The evolution of how they were a high-flying kind of offensive team and they found a recipe of how to win and they stuck with it.
“We aspire to be them and this is another learning experience for us and we need to be better.”
Florida’s second-round sweep led to a slew of changes that were aimed at mirroring Tampa Bay’s mix of skill and gritty play, the first of which was replacing Brunette with veteran head coach Paul Maurice.
Maurice, the NHL’s active leader in wins as a head coach, is looking to add a strong defensive element to Florida’s high octane offensive system.
The battle-tested Panthers were immediately sold.
“We didn’t come in to change everything, we came in to add some things,” he said.
”We have a really high IQ in that room, so they knew they needed to fix some things. The buy-in was was before I even explained it.”
The other move was a blockbuster heard around the NHL.
Florida traded MVP candidate Jonathan Huberdeau and star defenseman MacKenzie Weegar to acquire star power forward Matthew Tkachuk.
The 24-year-old thrives in hard-checking, defensively-tight games and couples that with a dangerous shot and nifty hands.
After a 104-point 2021-22 season, the early returns are looking good in his four-game run in Sunrise. He currently leads the team with two goals and six points.
He is real good right hashmarks down in the offensive zone,” Maurice said.
“He has hand skill and with the way he positions his body, he is clearly not afraid to hang it out down there. He has a little edge when he bumps into people, we just have to have a little rangefinder going with some of those shots and he will do well.”
Tkachuk has grown to relish rivalry games — specifically the NHL’s famed ‘Battle of Alberta’ — and his approach will be no different with the Sunshine State Showdown.
“I hate Edmonton, but I hate Tampa more now,” he said.
He, and the Panthers, get their first crack at this Tampa team that arguably built this iteration of the Panthers.
And they will be fueled by the agony they felt in the handshake line with their bitter rival in June.
“I don’t think our group needed more motivation going into the offseason,” Sam Reinhart said.
”It leaves a sour taste in your mouth going into it the way we did and that’s healthy. That’s a learning experience. I think it takes a lot of teams going through experiences like that and it’s about how you react, how you work to get better and put yourself in that spot again to work towards a different outcome.”
MORNING SKATE UPDATES
— Brandon Montour will draw in to the lineup after missing the last two games with an injury. Lucas Carlsson is out.
— Sergei Bobrovsky will start in net on Friday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
— Florida will roll with the same forward group as they have for the entire 2022-23 season. Newly-signed Eric Staal will not draw in.
PANTHERS ON DECK
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Friday, 7:30 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- Tickets: CLICK HERE
- Streaming ONLY: ESPN+/Hulu
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM 2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- DraftKings odds — Florida favored: Money Line (-115); Puck line (-1.5, +220); Over/Under 6.5 (-130/+110)
- Last season: Split four regular season games; Tampa won second-round playoff series 4-0
- All-time regular season series: Florida leads 73-49-18, 10 ties
PROJECTED FLORIDA PANTHERS LINEUP
23 Carter Verhaeghe // 16 Sasha Barkov // 13 Sam Reinhart
19 Matthew Tkachuk // 9 Sam Bennett // 38 Rudolfs Balcers
27 Eetu Luostarinen // 15 Anton Lundell // 6 Colin White
94 Ryan Lomberg // 21 Nick Cousins // 70 Patric Hornqvist
42 Gus Forsling // 62 Brandon Montour
28 Josh Mahura // 7 Radko Gudas
18 Marc Staal // 3 Matt Kiersted
72 Sergei Bobrovsky
30 Spencer Knight
Scratched: D Lucas Carlsson, F Eric Staal
Injured: Anthony Duclair (LTIR-Achilles), Aaron Ekblad (LTIR-LBI), Zac Dalpe (UBI), Justin Sourdif (UBI)
PROJECTED TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING LINEUP
28 Brandon Hagel // 21 Brayden Point // 86 Nikita Kucherov
20 Nick Paul // 91 Steven Stamkos // 17 Alex Killorn
79 Ross Colton // 90 Vladislav Namestnikov // 10 Corey Perry
82 Gabriel Fortier // 41 Pierre-Edouard Bellemare // 14 Pat Maroon
77 Victor Hedman // 81 Erik Cernak
98 Mikhail Sergachev // 48 Nicklaus Perbix
7 Haydn Fleury // 52 Cal Foote
88 Andrei Vasilevskiy
1 Brian Elliott