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After long wait, season finally arrives for Lightning

Opening night marks return of Steven Stamkos after missing most of last season with knee injury

by Bryan Burns / TampaBayLightning.com

Preview | Lightning vs. Panthers

Game Preview | Lightning vs. Panthers

Caley Chelios previews Friday's home opener versus the Florida Panthers

  • 01:29 •

For two nights, the Tampa Bay Lightning have watched at home on TV while the rest of the teams in the National Hockey League started the 2017-18 season.

Now, the Bolts' moment has finally arrived.

Tonight, the Lightning will host the Florida Panthers at AMALIE Arena in the season opener for both teams. Tampa Bay will look to erase the memory of last year's disappointing season, when the Bolts were the trendy pick to make a run at the Stanley Cup but didn't even qualify for the playoffs.

"You want to get going. You want to join the party," said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who will suit up in his first regular season game since tearing the lateral meniscus in his right knee on November 15, 2016 at Detroit. "Tonight will be that night for us, and we're looking forward to it."

Despite missing out on the postseason, the Lightning are again dealing with high expectations. With Stamkos and Ryan Callahan -- who missed 64 games last season while dealing with a hip issue -- in the lineup and seemingly back to their pre-injury selves, plus the addition of a pair of veteran voices in forward Chris Kunitz and defenseman Dan Girardi, the Bolts are seen as a contender in the Eastern Conference. In EA Sports NHL's annual simulation of the season, the Lightning were picked to win the Stanley Cup in seven games over the Edmonton Oilers.

The lofty expectations don't bother Stamkos or the rest of his teammates.

Video: Cooper on home opener"Internally, expectations are just as high," he said. "If people want to talk about us, that's great. I think (head coach Jon Cooper) said it's better to be talked about than to be looked over. It doesn't change our approach or anything. We know it was a disappointing year last year. To be successful, you need a lot of things to fall into place. We'll look to build on that starting tonight."

Cooper said there are two dates on the NHL calendar that are most special to him: the start of the playoffs and the first game of the season.

"We're really eager now because we're two days into the season and everybody in the division's got points but us," Cooper said, referring to the fact every team in the Atlantic has played and gained at least one point, except for his squad and their opponent, Florida. "This is just a really, really exciting time because you start from scratch. The one thing coming into camp as a coach, you just want to say, 'Did you feel like you got everything out of your players? Did you deliver the message you wanted to deliver? Were the guys working?' And we checked all those boxes…But especially after the way last year ended and missing the playoffs, you've got a little bit of time to reflect and I think we had to turn it up a notch and we did. We don't know how this is going to translate but I do know the guys are in a good frame of mind and all the players are excited."

As challenging as last season was for the Lightning, it was even worse for Callahan, who missed the start of 2016-17 after having offseason hip surgery and was in and out of the lineup for a couple months before shutting it down for good and having a second procedure completed on the hip. The Bolts alternate captain is finally fully healthy again and eager to prove he still has plenty more left in the tank.

"It was a long year for me last year, a lot of rehab, a lot of thinking," Callahan said. "To be able to get back here and feel the way I do and be able to play the game that makes me successful, a lot of nervous energy and a lot of excitement. It feels good to be back here on Opening Night and get going again."

GIRARDI ON TOP PAIR: Since returning to the lineup for the Lightning's final preseason game at Nashville, Jake Dotchin has been penciled on the top defensive pair with Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman.

But at Friday's morning skate, Dan Girardi took over Dotchin's spot alongside Hedman while Dotchin was relegated to the fourth pair with Slater Koekkoek. After the practice session, Cooper noted that with eight defenseman on the Opening Night roster, a couple blueliners will have to sit each game.

Tonight is Dotchin's turn apparently.

"Different guys get to play and get a little feel for each other," Cooper said. "(Hedman and Girardi) played together in the preseason a little bit. We're in Game 1; there's 82 in a season. You hope a little chemistry goes because we don't know if this is going to stay together the whole time, but you've got a good veteran guy that can protect the net and you've got a horse that kind of leads the charge out there. For tonight, that's how it's going to go."

 

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