A season ago, the Florida Panthers were the surprise of the Southeast Division, winning it for the first time in franchise history and taking eventual Eastern Conference Champions the New Jersey Devils to seven games in the first round of the playoffs.
The Tampa Bay Lightning – a mere season removed from being one goal away from the Stanley Cup Finals themselves – were on the outside looking in, a stunning reversal of fortunes for the league's two southernmost teams.
Much of the league-generated narrative over the past few seasons has been an effort to manufacture a rivalry between these two hockey clubs. Before the lockout claimed the preseason and almost half of the regular season, they were scheduled to face each other several times in the preseason and again the standard six times for a division opponent during the regular season.
With the adjusted, intraconference schedule, the Bolts will now face the Panthers the first of five times this season.
From last season, however, both teams are trending in opposite directions.
The Panthers are 1-4 on the year. They have dropped four straight in regulation following a seasoning opening victory over the Carolina Hurricanes, including a 7-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers squad the Lightning just dominated 5-1 two nights ago.
Meanwhile, the Lightning are on a hot streak to start the year with a 4-1 record, a three-game winning streak, and an unblemished home record.
The Panthers will get top line forward Kris Versteeg into the line-up for the first time this season, but are likely to remain without fellow top-liners Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleischmann, as well as forwards Sean Bergenheim, Marcel Goc, and defenseman Erik Gudbrandson.
With five potential starters out of the line-up, this tilt presents itself as a potential "trap" game for the Lightning, who may take the struggling and injury-riddled Panthers for granted.
Keeping consistent play up despite the apparent weakness of the opponent will be key for the Lightning in denying the division and conference opponent any points in tonight's game and continuing the hot start.
Puck drops at 7:30 EST.Tags: Florida Panthers, Hockey, NHL, Tampa Bay, Tampa Bay Lightning