Do you consider the Florida Panthers to be the Lightning's top rival? If not, who would be?— Raw Charge (@RawCharge) July 2, 2020
Wow….that’s not even close. Based on the comments it seems Boston would be the current rival for the Bolts (although Bruins fans may disagree with that), and the Panthers, based on their lack of success recently have faded from the ire of most Lightning fans. That isn’t unexpected since Tampa Bay and Florida have struggled to be good at the same time and have yet to meet in the playoffs (where true dislike for opposing teams is born and nurtured).
However, the Lightning and Panthers’ rivalry does have something that their dalliances with other franchises lacks - a cup. Not The Cup, but a cup nonetheless. Yes, the two teams still battle it out every year for The Governor’s Cup (formerly the Nextel Cup Challenge and before that the Sunshine Cup). We’ll tackle the origins of this trophy sometime in the future because it has its roots with Phil Esposito and his shenanigans in the early days of the franchise are always entertaining.
Since the two teams play for a cup, even if it’s a cup that no one knows about (Jon Cooper once quipped that he doesn’t think the governor knows what the Governor’s Cup is), and since they are located in the same state and the same division lets concede that there is at least the inkling of a rivalry there.
Over the years the upper hand has ebbed and flowed. The Panthers dominated the first few years, the Lightning won the series in the early 2000s up until the lockout, then Florida had the better run of play. Most recently it’s been Tampa Bay in the lead, having won the season series the last three years and seven of the last nine.
When rivalries are written about it’s usually the glorious wins and high moments that garner all of the press. That’s easy and fun to write about. So, let's do the opposite. We’re going to delve into the lowest moment for the Lightning in their feud with the “Stinkin’ Panthers”. It doesn’t take much research (lucky for me!) to pinpoint that moment.
December 27th, 1999.
It’s 4 BSC (before Stanley Cup) and the world is a little nervous about Y2K. The Lightning are going through some changes. Daren Puppa is hurt, the veterans GM Phil Esposito brought in have struggled, and the youngsters (led by a nineteen-year-old Vincent Lecavalier) haven’t found their stride yet. They enter the last game of the century on a five game losing streak, including their last two on the road where they were outscored a combined 10-6 by Pittsburgh and Atlanta. Head coach Steve Ludzik is looking fashionable on the bench, but is struggling to get his team to play well. As a message he benches defenseman Andrei Zyuzin and forward Todd Warriner.
The rest of the team doesn’t get the message as they are outplayed on home ice by the Panthers in a 6-1 loss. The Lightning managed one measly goal against legendary netminder Richard Shulmistra.
We’ll wait for the collective cry of “Who?” to die down a bit.
Yes, Richard Shulmistra, in his only start for the Panthers, stopped 20 of 21 shots to pick up his first and only NHL victory. Why was he starting for a Florida team that was in first place in the Southeast division and entered the game with a 19-12-3-3 record?
Because back-up Mikhail Shtalenkov had been a little bit below average in his previous six games and head coach Terry Murray wanted to “shake things up”. So why had Shtalenkov started six games? Because starter Trevor Kidd had hurt his shoulder in a mandatory skills competition and was out for two months. Remember those? Teams were forced by the NHL to put on a six-event skills showcase for the nebulos reason of “promoting the game”. Good times!
Unfortunately, the Lightning weren’t able to capitalize on the 28-year-old’s lack of experience in goal and were blown off the ice in the first ten minutes of the game as the Panthers outshot them 10-3 and led 1-0 thanks to a goal by Scott Mellanby. Had Dan Cloutier not stood on his head in that period the deficit could easily have been four or five.
By the third period, despite Cloutier’s heroics, the Panthers did claw their way up to a 6-0 lead thanks to two goals by Cam Stewart, a goal from Jaroslav Spacek, and power play goals by Mellanby and Mark Parrish. Dan Kesa ruined Shulmistra’s bid for a shutout with under four minutes to play by scoring shorthanded.
The Lightning were shorthanded because, well, Darcy Tucker lost his mind. The 24-year-old center set a franchise record for penalty minutes in the game (49) and game misconducts in a game (3). How does one go about setting such a record?
You start the game by fighting Lance Pitlick a minute into the game (5 minutes). Pick up a double minor for roughing (4 minutes) by mixing it up with Pitlick again in the third period. Then top it off with this:
That’s a spear, equipment violation (jersey not tied down), and another fighting major. Three game misconducts (30 minutes) along with the majors for spearing (5 minutes) and fighting (5 minutes) and that’s how you get to 49 minutes. Not bad for a day’s work.
Tucker would get suspended for two games for the spear, which he told the St. Petersburg Times was a result of “just trying to push him away and give myself a chance” and that he had used his stick in the “wrong way”. That’s one way to describe it.
Simpson’s thoughts on the incident took another direction, “I’ve played against Tucker for a long time . We had a big rivalry in juniors...He likes to think he’s stirring it up, but most of the time he’s just diving or faking it. I thought we did a great job against him. He was the one taking the extra penalty all night. We were suckering him, because, look, the guy just snapped.”
See, a rivalry!
The Tucker fiasco was the highlight of night that also saw the Lightning’s Reid Simpson (no relation to Todd) take out Bret Hedican with an elbow to the face and Peter Worrell exacting revenge with a big hit on Simpson later in the game.
Following the game the players had a closed door meeting to go over their dismal and disheartened recent play. It was also the last game Stephane Richer (the forward, not the defenseman) would play in in a Lightning uniform. Having seen his playing time reduced, Richer basically ghosted the team, asking for a trade and then refusing to report to Detroit after clearing waivers despite initially indicating he would play for the Vipers while the team tried to work out a deal.
Eventually they would find a taker and on January 13th he and his 499 career goals was dealt to St. Louis for Rich Parent and Chris McAlpine.
Following the loss, the Lightning had four nights off before kicking off
The Willennium, I mean the new millennium, with a game against - The Florida Panthers and their new goaltender, Mike Veron. Despite assurances that they had a good week of practice and were looking forward to making a statement the Bolts went out and promptly lost 7-5.
That loss was their eighth straight game against the Panthers without a win (seven losses and a tie) and Tampa Bay would add another loss and another tie to make it ten straight by the end of the season. However, they would bounce back starting the next season and capture the next four Governor’s Cups against the Panthers. They would also go on to win a slightly more important trophy during that run.
Call it a rivalry of convenience if you like, but it still counts, and that Monday night in 1999 was definitely the nadir of the intrastate feud.