The Tampa Bay Lightning hung onto a 3-2 win over the Boston Bruins Thursday night, extend their winning streak to five.
Lightning fans will remember the contentious playoff series last year during the Eastern Conference Semifinals, in which Tampa Bay eliminated the Bruins in five games. They also played a seven-game thriller back in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, a series filled with bad blood. The TD Garden in Boston is also where Lightning captain Steven Stamkos broke his leg in 2013. In short, there is significant history between these two rivals.
Which raises the question: who is Tampa Bay’s biggest rival right now? The Bruins might be the answer, but there are other teams that come to mind. Before the game 70 random Lightning fans inside Amalie Arena were asked who they thought their team’s biggest rival is to help inform the conclusion.
The obvious choice, at least initially, is the Florida Panthers. Geography is the key factor for many rivalries around the league, like Pennsylvanian rivals Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers, and both teams calling Florida home is important for the 11 fans that named the Panthers.
The regular season matchups between the two teams have been intense; in fact, 91 fights have occurred between the two teams, the most for either against a single opponent. In the last five years, fans traveling to the opposing building have been more frequent, bringing the same level of intensity to the stands.
However, there is one major roadblock to developing a true rivalry: despite being in-state and division rivals, the Cats and Bolts have never met in the playoffs. The closest came in the 2016 playoffs when Florida and Tampa Bay finished first and second in the Atlantic division, respectively. The Lightning did their job, beating the Detroit Red Wings in five games, but New York Islanders captain John Tavares’s Game 6 winning goal in double overtime ended the hopes of a Sunshine State Showdown.
Speaking of the Red Wings, they were another popular choice, compiling 13 votes. While this is a relatively new rivalry, it has quickly become a fan favorite. The two teams became regular foes during the 2013-14 season, when the NHL realigned its divisions and Detroit moved into the Atlantic Division.
They met in the first round of the 2015 playoffs, playing a seven game classic the Lightning won through a Brayden Coburn game-winner with ten minutes left in the final game. A year later the Lightning won the rematch, but although the series was not as close, there was a lot of bad blood. Lightning forwards Brian Boyle and Mike Blunden found themselves in multiple altercations, typically with Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader. Fans might most memorably recall Boyle’s chicken dance taunt at the end of Game Three after Abdelkader refused to drop the gloves during a tussle.
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While the intensity and the hatred are certainly noticeable when Detroit comes to town, their rivalry is still very new. And since the 2016 playoffs, the matchup has been very one-sided; Tampa Bay has won the last 13 games in the regular season.
The latest, and perhaps most tantalizing, rival is the Toronto Maple Leafs, according to eight Lightning fans. The Bolts have yet to play the Leafs in a playoff series, and the two teams have never really been good at the same time until now. Last season showed the first signs of potential, as all five games between Tampa Bay and Toronto were highly entertaining. This season they have two of the most potent attacks in the league, and if the early standings are any indication they should be duking it out atop the Atlantic Division for years to come.
John Tavares and Auston Matthews going toe-to-toe with Brayden Point and Stamkos will be must-watch television, but the Bolts have yet to play the Leafs this year (Toronto comes to town on December 13th), so the rivalry technically has not begun.
There are a few other teams, notably the Washington Capitals or Pittsburgh Penguins. The Lightning have faced both teams multiple times in the last eight postseason tournaments, but they only amassed five votes between them, and the will of the people reigns supreme.
Which brings us back to the Bruins, the team receiving the most votes with 15. The case is strong, highlighted by those two electric playoff series mentioned earlier. Even in the regular season, where Boston tends to dominate, the intensity level never fails to rise a level or two. The flashpoint for Lightning fans came at the end of the 2015 regular season, when Stamkos took down Brad Marchand.
Both teams look like they will be contenders for atleast a few more years, and along with Toronto, they will be the favorites to capture the Atlantic Division crown this season. Any good rivalries needs meaningful games and when teams are jockeying for position in the standings, where every regular season matchup has elevated stakes.
The X-factor for this choice is the animosity the fans have for each other. Most Lightning fans cannot stand Bruins fans, something that was made especially clear during the 2011 series. Also Tampa Bay sports fans in general do not like their Boston counterparts; ask a Rays fan what they think of the Red Sox.
If the fans have the answers, then it seems the Bruins are Tampa Bay’s biggest rivals. There is a strong case for the other teams mentioned, and fans may have different answers for different reasons. The Lightning will soon be contending with the likes of Toronto and the Buffalo Sabres, but for the moment it seems there is no better feeling for Bolts fans than a win against the B’s.