The National Hockey League was built around rivalries. Think about the Original Six – the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, and Toronto Maple Leafs – matchups that always feel like there is a little more at stake. Two of the next six teams added to the league – the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins – built upon that rivalry mentality, instantly dividing the state of Pennsylvania. Later, the NHL would add more teams out west that would have the same effect on other states – the hatred between the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks comes to mind.
As an organization it is important to foster and grow these rivalries – not only for the fan base but to help the players keep focus during a long season. Having a rivalry game in the middle of a long road trip or during a mid-season slump can help give the players a little something extra to get up for and add a little boost to a team’s mentality. The Tampa Bay Lightning lack what one would consider a true rival – although as the reigning Staley Cup Champions they have plenty of worthy contenders.
The Usual Suspects: Bruins and Canadiens
Who is the Lightning’s biggest rival? The most common answers are the Bruins and Canadiens. According to KnowRivalry.com – a website that calculates team rivalries based on fan surveys – the Canadiens edge out the Bruins as the Lightning’s top rival.
However, fans of the Canadiens and Bruins do not feel the same way about the Lightning – attributing rival points to the Lightning 9% and 32% less of the time, respectively. On the ice – where the rivalries truly matter – these matchups have been close in the regular season over the past 10 seasons as the series with both teams hovers around .500.
One reason a true rivalry has not emerged with the Bruins or Canadiens is the lack of significant meetings between the two teams. Since the salary cap was instituted in the 2005-06 season, the Lighting have faced the Canadiens only twice in their eight playoff appearances and the Bruins only three times – although twice in the last three seasons in which the Lightning won both in five games.
Playoff Adversaries: Blue Jackets, Capitals, and Penguins
Speaking of playoffs, in the Lightning’s previous three appearances in the last five years – not counting this past season’s Stanley Cup Championship run – they were ousted by the Columbus Blue Jackets, Washington Capitals, and Penguins.
During the 2018-19 season that saw the Lightning capture the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s best regular-season team, it was the upstart Blue Jackets that shattered the Lightning’s Stanley Cup dreams via sweep in the first round. The Lighting were able to pay back the Blue Jackets during this past season’s Cup run by bolstering their roster through signing Patrick Maroon and Zach Bogosian in free agency and trading for Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow at the trade deadline.
As for the Capitals and Penguins, the Lightning lost to both teams in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final – the Capitals and Penguins would both win the Stanley Cup after defeating the Lightning. This set the stage for a potential rivalry to emerge in the subsequent seasons – however with both the Capitals and Penguins in the Metropolitan Division the rivalry never truly blossomed. With these two teams likely staying in a separate division for the shorted 2020-21 season the question will remain – who is the Lightning’s rival?
Governor’s Cup – Florida Panthers
For anyone outside the state of Florida, the Lighting and Florida Panthers play for the Governor’s Cup every season – the winner is determined by the total number of points earned between the two teams during their head-to-head season matchups. And while the rivalry potential between these two teams is extremely high – the Lightning have faced the Panthers more than any other team in their history – games between Tampa and Florida never quite have that rivalry feeling like other in-state matchups.
One main reason is that the two teams have never been good at the same time – in the 26 seasons that they have existed in the NHL together they have only been in the playoffs twice at the same time and only once in the past five seasons. In fact – since the 2005-06 season – the Panthers have only made two playoff appearances in total.
The salary cap was adopted to help keep the playing field level in the NHL but when it comes to the Lightning and Panthers the talent gap is still quite large. Florida is close – running into a hot New York Islanders team during the Qualifying Round in the 2019-20 playoffs – and with Florida staying in the same division as the Lightning the ingredients are in place for this rivalry to get cooking.
Until the NHL returns to a full 82-game season the Lightning will need to treat every division opponent as their main rival. With the shortened season and more emphasis toward divisional games, the Lightning will need to find a way to get up for every game in the 2020-21 season. Lucky for them – as the defending Stanley Cup champions – every other team is going to treat them the same.
Born and raised in Michigan, Kyle Knopp started playing hockey when he was 3 years old. Knopp has played, coached, or worked at every level of ice hockey — including three seasons in the Ontario Hockey League and two seasons with the Detroit Red Wings where he was part of the Stanley Cup Championship team in 2008. He covers the Washington Capitals and Detroit Red Wings for The Hockey Writers and is the editor of THW’s Morning Skate newsletter. You can follow him on Twitter @THW_Knopp.