The Florida Panthers entered the National Hockey League in 1993, one year after crafty Phil Esposito somehow managed to bring the Tampa Bay Lightning to life over more favored expansion candidates Milwaukee, Seattle and Hamilton.
Including preseason games, the two Sunshine State teams have met in a total of eight different arenas scattered across the peninsula. In addition to current digs, the BB&T Center an Amalie Arena, the Cats and Bolts met a bunch of times at St. Petersburg’s ThunderDome and the Miami Arena. Back on December 26, 1993, during the Panthers inaugural season, they even played a neutral-site, regular season game at the old Orlando Arena. Preseason games between the clubs have been held at the Lakeland Civic Center, Estero’s German Arena and the Amway Center in Orlando.
St. Pete’s ThunderDome was the site of the first-ever regular season meeting between Florida and its closest neighbor. The cavernous building became the Lightning’s second home after the team played its expansion season at the cramped 10, 014-seat Expo Hall on the Florida State Fairgrounds.
After opening up with a 4-4 tie against the Blackhawks at Chicago Stadium on October, 6, and falling 5-3 on the road to the St. Louis Blues a day later, the Panthers hit Tampa looking to close the three-game road trip with the first win in franchise history.
The game was played on October 9, in front of a robust crowd of 27,227 which still remains a record for a regular season game not played as part of the NHL Heritage Classic, Stadium Series, or Winter Classic.
John Vanbiesbrouck was in net for Florida facing Tampa Bay’s Daren Puppa. The Panthers plucked Puppa from the roster of the Toronto Maple Leafs on June 24, only to lose him to Tampa Bay a day later in Phase II of the expansion draft, which allowed the Lightning, Ottawa Senators and San Jose Sharks to each choose two players from the brand new Cats and Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Puppa was the only player the Cats lost as the three of the six picks were passed upon. The Mighty Ducks lost goaltender Glenn Healy and defenseman Dennis Vial.
After a scoreless first period, Scott Levins scored what turned out to the first game-winning goal in club history 2:19 into the middle frame when he deflected the puck past Puppa after defenseman Brent Severyn threw the puck at the net from the sideboards with the Panthers enjoying a man-advantage thanks to a tripping call on Lightning defenseman Shawn Chambers.
Vanbiesbrouck made a little more Panthers history by posting the expansion team’s first-ever shutout with a stellar 35-save effort.
Tom Fitzgerald tacked on an unassisted empty-net goal with 27 seconds left on the clock to complete the scoring in the historic 2-0 win that dropped the Bolts to 0-3.
The teams would skate to a hard-fought 3-3 tie at Miami Arena eight days later. Florida would eke out a 2-1 overtime win, thanks to a Dave Lowry goal, in Miami on October 30; beat the Bolts 3-1 in Orlando and play the Lightning to a 1-1 draw in Miami on January 26 to go 3-0-2 against Tampa Bay in that first season series.