Lightning, Panthers could meet in playoffs for first time if cats keep pace

Aaron Ekblad skates with the Florida Panthers during a preseason game Oct. 4 against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena.

Aaron Ekblad skates with the Florida Panthers during a preseason game Oct. 4 against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena.

Are we looking at a possible Sunshine Series in the first round?

At the halfway point of the NHL season, both of Florida’s NHL teams are doing better than expected and could end up with a rendezvous in the playoffs for the first time against each other.

The Florida Panthers sit just out of the eighth spot, three points behind the Boston Bruins who is on a three-game win streak after a recent tumble. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Lightning keeps trading off in the top three spots in the conference.

That Governors Cup to create a cross-state rivalry might mean something next season if the Bolts and Panthers are able to meet in the playoffs this year.

The Panthers are finding themselves in a lot of what’s called 50-50 games. The Capitals’ short tenure under Dale Hunter was known for this but the Panthers are having more spurts of offense.

For the most part, they’re playing tight, trapping defense and aren’t manufacturing a lot of goals. Their 96 goals for is tied for third lowest in the conference. The New Jersey Devils, who sit 14th, have scored the same amount. The Panthers’ 103 goals allowed is fourth best in the conference behind the Rangers, Canadiens and Penguins. Overall, sixth best in the league. Roberto Luongo finally has a defensively sound team in front of him.

If the Panthers are able to trade for a top-six scorer, I would bet on them making a second-half surge that can sneak them into that eighth spot.

Back in Tampa, the Lightning’s 140 goals scored leads the league but its goals against is middle of the pack at 111 tied for 12th in the league with Boston. That’s also seventh in the East.

That in itself would be a fascinating series if came to a head—hockey’s highest scoring team against a grinding team that allows some of the fewest.

Back to that Governors Cup—a regular season bragging rights trophy that helps support youth hockey. The two teams square off against each other three times in the final two months of the season. Their only meeting this year was a 3-2 OT win by the Bolts on opening night. Those remaining games—especially the April 4 match that would be one of the final for both teams of the season—could help determine whether this Sunshine Series becomes a reality.

If the Panthers make it in the playoffs and the two teams meet in the first round, the cats have a chance to give the Bolts some fits. Even if that means Lightning fans make BB&T Center feel like another home game for the Bolts.

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