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Tampa Bay Lightning vs Florida Panthers preview: Another installment of Floridian rivalry

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A matchup of divisional leaders.

Florida Panthers v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Florida Panthers: GAME 31

Time: 4:00 pm Eastern Time

Location: Amalie Arena

Broadcast/Streaming: TVAS, Fox SUN

Opponent SBNation Site: Litter Box Cats

Few people could have expected this a year ago, that the Tampa Bay Lightning’s most difficult opponent in the 2020-21 regular season would be the Florida Panthers. However this is exactly what has happened as the Panthers are the only team beating the Bolts in their season series so far. The Lightning are entering tonight’s matchup with a 1-2-0 record against their opponent from Sunrise. The Lightning however have a better position in the standings and have a two-point lead over the Panthers, which could either disappear or extend this evening.

Many Floridian hockey fans have waited a long time to have a true Florida rivalry, however it wasn’t in the books when both teams were mostly at the opposite sides of the standings. In recent memory the Panthers have had just one solid season in 2015-16, when they won the Atlantic Division but lost to the New York Islanders in the first round. A year after, the Panthers management nullified all that effort, firing Gerard Gallant and sending the team back into mediocrity. Over the last three season before this year, the Lightning had a 10-2-0 record against Florida.

Before last season, the Panthers started another rebuild, inviting Joel Quenneville as their head coach and acquiring Sergei Bobrovsky. The team also pushed for Artemi Panarin but couldn’t afford to pay another player a 10-million dollar paycheck. The first year was complicated as Bobrovsky struggled and played probably his worst season in the NHL, but the team has made a big step forward this season.

The team has added some small pieces, such as former Lightning player Carter Verhaeghe, who fit perfectly into their team and helped them to become stronger overall. After a hot start Verhaeghe has slowed down a little bit, but is still keeping a solid pace. Bobrovsky is still not playing his best hockey, but the team reduced his usage, giving more games to Chris Driedger, which has helped Bobrovsky stay more consistent. Both Patric Hornqvist and Aaron Ekblad played probably their best hockey in recent years and Aleksander Barkov finally emerged into a franchise player with a Hart Trophy caliber season. The Panthers have also stayed mostly untouched by injuries and COVID-19 related issues, which has also had a positive effect on the team.

So far this season the Panthers outplaying the Lightning in most aspects of the game. The Lightning had one very dominant game against them this season, when they defeated Florida 6-1, but in the other two games the Panthers deservedly earned a victory. The most frustrating game for the Lighting was their first meeting this season, when the Lightning finished the game with just 20.79 xGF% at 5v5.

Both teams are playing the second leg of back-to-back games this evening after winning their game a day before. Andrei Vasilevskiy has matched Louis Domingue’s record for the most consecutive wins yesterday, but will probably wait another day to set his own record, as there’s no reason to play the third game in a four-day span. Ross Colton played his third straight game in a Lightning’s jersey last night and is making a stronger case to stay with the team for a longer period of time.

The Lightning are finishing their three games homestand tonight and heading back on the road with two games against the Dallas Stars and one game against the Carolina Hurricanes scheduled for the next week.

Tampa Bay Lightning Lines

Forwards

Ondrej Palat - Brayden Point - Anthony Cirelli

Alex Killorn - Yanni Gourde - Steven Stamkos

Barclay Goodrow - Tyler Johnson - Blake Coleman

Pat Maroon - Ross Colton - Mathieu Joseph

Defense

Victor Hedman - Jan Rutta

Ryan McDonagh - Erik Cernak

Mikhail Sergachev - Cal Foote

Goalies

Curtis McElhinney

Andrei Vasilevskiy

Florida Panthers Lines

(based on the previous game)

Forwards

Carter Verhaeghe - Aleksander Barkov - Anthony Duclair

Jonathan Huberdeau - Alex Wennberg - Patric Hornqvist

Frank Vatrano - Eetu Luostarinen - Owen Tippett

Masom Marchement - Noel Acciari - Ryan Lomberg

Defense

MacKenzie Weegar - Aaron Ekblad

Keith Yandle - Anton Stralman

Gustav Forsling - Radko Gudas

Goalies

Sergei Bobrovsky

Chris Driedger