They share a common launch window, a common state and a common nose turn from the majority of those in the upper echelons of the National Hockey League, especially Canadians. They’re Florida’s two hockey teams, and for the second consecutive year they will engage in a playoff series against each other.
When they were created as part of the early 90s expansion of the league, there was a great deal of surprise that the league was still looking to gain traction south of the Mason-Dixon line. When the league expanded in 1972 the Atlanta Flames brought NHL hockey to the south to a brand-new downtown arena with great expectations. They came into the league at the same time as the New York Islanders, who initially were the league’s doormat. By 1980 the Islanders had won a Stanley Cup, and the Flames were on their way to Calgary.
So while expanding the league’s California footprint to San Jose and Anaheim (particularly with Disney involved in the latter) made sense from an economic standpoint, being able to become natural rivals with the Kings, the expansion into Florida was initially far riskier. After all, the NBA had only come to South Florida a couple of years earlier, and they still have only played in Tampa with a temporarily relocated Toronto Raptors team forced to evacuate Canada during the pandemic last year. Both cities initially lacked new arenas. The Lightning, as the Tampa Bay team became known, started out in a multipurpose stadium in St. Petersburg, the current thoroughly insufficient home of the Tampa Bay Rays. They were geographically isolated and effectively dropped a rink in the middle of a football field and added a bunch of seats on the field like a concert, often leaving the upper deck closed off. The Florida Panthers, as the South Florida team became known, initially joined the Heat at the Miami Arena, an outdated facility in a dangerous neighborhood that rarely staged hockey games.
But both population centers had numerous ex-pats from New York to draw upon to build fan bases, and both found connections. The Lightning’s initial ownership group included ex-Ranger (and Bruin) Phil Esposito, who served as the team’s ticket to credibility and who, to this day, remains involved as an outspoken broadcaster even past his 80th birthday. The Panthers were initially headed by ex-Islanders boss Bill Torrey and featured Denis Potvin as an early announcer and ambassador.
Initially, the Panthers had the upper hand. Much like the Islanders, they had early success, setting a record for most points by an expansion team in their first season and making the Stanley Cup finals in their third full season, marks that stood for more than two decades before the Vegas Golden Knights eclipsed them in 2017-18. Eventually, they relocated to a more desirable (and Long Island-like) arena of their own in Broward County, and their future looked bright.
Paths then diverged. The Panthers settled into mediocrity and failed to win another playoff series for more than a quarter-century. Their new arena aged considerably, changed names several times and was overshadowed by the Heat’s sparkling digs in downtown Miami and the success the team had via Lebron James and Dwayne Wade. The Lightning got their own arena in downtown Tampa and had considerably more success. They won the Stanley Cup in 2004, ironically beating the Flames, and claimed the title longer than any other team in history when the 2004-05 season was wiped out due to labor unrest. They eventually won back-to-back Stanley Cups in the two most recent seasons, albeit ones with asterisks due to COVID. They won the 2020 title in a fanless arena in Toronto, and last year after an abbreviated 56-game sprint of a regular season.
Along the way to their second straight cup, they beat Florida in a first round series. Both teams had excellent, though shortened, regular seasons. This year Florida had their best regular season yet and top seed, led by budding superstar Jonathan Huberdeau, while Tampa Bay, despite earning more than 100 points, finished with a seventh seed and no home ice advantage. As we’ve previously documented in this space, the Lightning took advantage of a snake bitten Maple Leafs team and again won a series in Toronto with a thrilling Game 7 win that capped a rebound from a 3-2 series deficit, this time not in a bubble but in front of a full house of demoralized and despondent Leafs fans.
So tonight in Sunrise the Panthers start with home ice and the second consecutive Battle of Florida hockey begins, proving last year was no fluke. In a later round, and with a full season of success behind both teams, the eyes of the hockey world are upon them, and this time without anything but appreciation. These teams are for real, their fans are rabid and either could easily win it all.
I’ll be watching, and so too will my good luck kitty.
Be careful, don’t get struck by Lightning.