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‘They’re a team you want to beat’: Ahead of playoff series, Panthers talk Lightning rivalry

There’s no sugarcoating it: The Florida Panthers know they need to get over the hurdle of beating the Tampa Bay Lighting when the games matter the most. They tried twice before only to fall flat and never got the chance to face them last year on their run to the Stanley Cup Finals.

That adds an extra layer of intrigue to this opening-round matchup of the Stanley Cup Playoffs between the in-state rivals. Puck drop for Game 1 of the best-of-7 series between the Panthers and Lightning is at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at Amerant Bank Arena.

“It’s an easy game to get up for,” said Panthers forward Sam Reinhart, who led Florida with 57 goals and led the NHL with 27 power-play goals this season. “I think over the last couple years, they’re kind of the benchmark of success, right? They’re a team you want to beat. This is going to be a great test for us.”

Added forward Carter Verhaeghe: “It’s always fireworks when we play these guys. It’s always a good game. They are an awesome team, really skilled, physical. They have all the elements to have a really good team, so it’s going to be two good teams going at it.”

The Panthers have faced the Lightning twice in the playoffs, falling both times. First it was losing in six games in the opening round of the 2021 playoffs. One year later, Tampa Bay swept Florida in the second round. The Lightning made the Stanley Cup Finals both of those years, winning it all in 2021 and falling to the Colorado Avalanche in 2022.

“It’s a rivalry. There’s no doubt about it,” defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “They’ve had the blueprint. They’ve won. They’ve had success. They’re still hungry team. You can see it every time we play them. There’s gonna be no easy ice out there. It’s gonna be a tough battle and the excitement’s definitely there.”

But since that last playoff meeting, the Panthers underwent a stylistic overhaul. It started at the top with the hiring of Paul Maurice, who instilled a gritty, defense-first system.

“We are a completely different team,” Sam Bennett said. “We play a different game, we have different systems. We honestly have a lot of the same guys but we are a completely different team.”

Maurice understands and acknowledges the history and the emotions that come with the series, but he also brings up the reminder that at the end of the day, it’s playoff hockey. Anything can happen once the postseason begins — as his Panthers showcased last year when they went from the last team to secure a playoff spot to coming three wins away from hoisting the cup.

“There’s a history between the two teams and it’s been exciting — and then there’s the fresh start,” Maurice said. “What happens in the past matters not, except if you can find some good in that. History and momentum get rewritten every time that the puck drops. You get to reinvent yourself.”

The Panthers’ first chance to reinvent themselves in the postseason history with their in-state rival comes on Sunday afternoon.

“It’s going to be a battle,” Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov said. “All the games against them for many years in the past and this year — even training camp games — those games get very emotional. It’s going to be a lot of fun from both sides and just a hard battle.”