SUNRISE, Fla. — The past two seasons, the Lightning spent the second half of the regular season jostling with the Panthers for playoff positioning near the top of the Atlantic Division.
Last season, Florida ran away with the Presidents’ Trophy. Two seasons ago, the Lightning dispatched the Panthers in the first round of the playoffs. Despite roster turnover, each regular-season meeting between the teams seems to mean a bit more to the players involved.
Look only to the weekend’s All-Star Game events in South Florida to see that the Sunshine State rivalry is alive and well. Lightning All-Stars Andrei Vasilevskiy and Nikita Kucherov were booed at FLA Live Arena at every opportunity despite playing with the Panthers’ Matthew Tkachuk and Aleksander Barkov on the Atlantic team.
“To me, it’s like they’re respecting me because I’ve done something right against them,” Vasilevskiy said after Saturday’s All-Star Game. “I’ll take it.”
Tonight, the Lightning resume the regular season against the Panthers in Sunrise. Eleven points apart in the Atlantic standings, the teams are in very different positions entering the stretch run.
While the Lightning (32-15-1, 65 points) are entrenched in the division’s third playoff position, the Panthers (24-22-6, 54 points) are among five teams within six points of each other battling for the Eastern Conference’s two wild-card spots.
Florida sits three points out of the second wild-card spot owned by Pittsburgh, but the Penguins have three games in hand.
The Lightning won both previous games against the Panthers this season, 4-1 on Dec. 10 at Amalie Arena and 3-2 in overtime Oct. 21 in Sunrise.
The Panthers played nine of their last 13 games on the road entering the break. They are a 11-15-3 on the road overall and have allowed an average 3.83 goals per game. Tonight’s game against the Lightning is the beginning of a stretch of 12 of the Panthers’ next 17 games at home.
“We’re looking forward to … just continuing on what we’re pushing for here,” Tkachuk said. “It feels like we’ve been on the road the whole year so far, so finally we get a little bit of time at home, and we’ve got to take advantage of it.”
Tkachuk is one of the differences in this year’s team from last season’s. He was traded to the Panthers in the offseason from the Flames for forward Jonathan Huberdeau and defenseman MacKenzie Weegar. Florida also has a new coach, Paul Maurice.
Statistically, the Panthers’ play in the third period is worth notice, too.
Before their 4-3 overtime win over the Bruins in their final game before the All-Star break, the Panthers had been outscored 77-55 in the third period this season and 5-0 in overtime. They were 0-17-1 when trailing after two periods before the come-from-behind win.
“We finished on a really good note before the break, and I’m really excited to get back at it,” Barkov said Saturday. “It makes it easier that you don’t have to travel anywhere right now. You just sleep in your own bed and get back at it.”
Goaltending has been an issue for the Panthers in the past, especially during the postseason, and this year is no different. Because of injuries, Florida was down to its third goaltender before the break. Alex Lyon started the final six games. Sergei Bobrovsky has more losses (13) than wins (12) this season, and Spencer Knight has allowed 3.05 goals per game.
Meanwhile, Vasilevskiy and Kucherov seemed energized as they returned to Tampa following Saturday’s game to reunite with their teammates Sunday before heading back to South Florida with the team following practice.
“Guys are not trying too hard in the (All-Star Game). It’s probably 60 or 70 percent,” Vasilevskiy said Saturday. “So yeah, it’s just hard to take something for a real game, but emotionally it was such a boost. It was just a good thing just to get away from the regular season and have fun a little bit, kind of joke around on the ice and do some silly things.
“And now it’s go time again, so back to work.”
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