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Noel Acciari spent the last 30 minutes of the Florida Panthers’ rout of the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday looking for revenge. A dirty cross check in the second period sent him tumbling headfirst into the boards, and back to the locker room to get his head and neck checked out, and fully ignited a brewing rivalry between in-state foes.
He already revenge on the scoreboard — the Panthers were cruising to a 5-1 win late in the third period — and still he searched until he found a partner away from the action. With 2:43 left in a blowout win, Acciari landed punch after punch against Barclay Goodrow to punctuate a tone-setting win in South Florida.
The forwards both headed for the tunnels for the final two fighting penalties in a game filled with them. The Panthers and Lightning combined for 156 penalty minutes in a final tune-up before the two rivals meet again in the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs later this month.
“Both teams know we’re going to be facing one another,” coach Joel Quenneville. “The score kind of went up and it sometimes we go back to old-time hockey.”
With two games in Sunrise to close out the regular season and a first-round series locked in, Florida (36-14-5) and Tampa Bay (36-16-3) could potentially play nine straight games against one another. The Panthers — by securing a four-goal win and goading the defending Stanley Cup champion into 78 penalty minutes — made their statement in the penultimate game of the regular season.
On Monday, they can lock up the No. 2 seed and home-ice advantage for the first round. They now lead the Lightning by two points and only need an overtime loss to finish second in the Central Division.
For nearly 30 years, Florida and Tampa Bay — natural geographic rivals with wildly divergent levels of on-ice success — have longed for reasons to hate each other. Now they have a reason.
Forward Alex Wennberg notched a hat trick. Defenseman Gustav Forsling, All-Star left wing Jonathan Huberdeau and versatile forward Sam Bennett all finished with two points, and Bennett added 12 minutes worth of penalties, including a 10-minute misconduct. Left wing Ryan Lomberg piled up 29 penalty minutes, including two misconducts, in his enforcer role.
“It’s a really tough game,” Wennberg said. “We both want to win and there’s a good chance here that you kind of rub people off a little bit, get a little intensity, get a little fire.
“It’s the playoffs coming up.”
The Panthers never trailed after Wennberg put them ahead 1-0 with 7:12 left in the first, and their lead swelled to 4-1 by the end of the second after goals by Huberdeau and Bennett, and another by Wennberg. Florida put at least four goals past star goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy for the third time this season — something that has only happened eight times all year for the likely Vezina Trophy winner.
Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky outdueled him with 28 saves on 29 shots.
“We played a good game tonight. That’s how we’ve got to play,” Huberdeau said. “We’ve got to make it hard on him and that’s how it has to be in the playoffs.”
When the final whistle blew on the second period, a scrum broke out around Vasilevskiy. Left wing Mason Marchment laughed while Mikhail Sergachev came after him. Bennett jumped in to tussle with the Lightning defenseman. Before the officials could pull everyone apart, defenseman Brandon Montour pried Yanni Gourde out of the mess to start a fight with Tampa Bay’s versatile forward.
The cross check against Acciari set off boiling tensions.
In the third period, Lightning defenseman Luke cross checked Acciari again away from the play and tensions heated even more. The Lightning finally lost it with 10:02 left in the game, when Owen Tippett lifted Tampa Bay forward Anthony Cirelli off his feet with a check and Lightning center Ross Colton tackled the right wing, throwing a punch at his head once he pinned the rookie onto the ice.
Bennett, Cirelli and Tampa Bay defenseman Fredrik Claesson all came out of the ensuing mayhem with misconduct penalties. Four minutes later, Montour, Gourde, Lomberg and Lightning winger Pat Maroon all got some, too, after a fight broke out between Montour and Maroon when the ice crew was already out on the rink for an official stoppage.
While time ticked away, a sellout crowd of 5,040 serenaded the Panthers with cheers and chants.
Saturday was only the first taste and both teams planned to ease their way into a super-sized series.
Florida held out forwards Patric Hornqvist and Carter Verhaeghe, who are both recovering from upper-body injuries and plan to play in the regular-season finale Monday. Tampa Bay scratched star defenseman Victor Hedman with a lower-body injury and decided not to rush versatile superstar forward Steven Stamkos back from injured reserve before the playoffs begin. With only home-ice advantage at stake the possibility of nine straight games against one another, the Panthers and Lightning looked at the penultimate game of the regular season as part meaningful late-season showdown, and part preseason tune-up before the games really get important in the next few weeks.
Instead, it became the birth of a rivalry 27 years in the making.
“Honestly,” Huberdeau said, “I didn’t expect it to go this way.”