Tampa Bay's defensive pairings heading into next week's season opener are still a puzzle Lightning coaches and management are trying to put together.
Last season's shut down pair, Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak, seem to be the one constant. Those two will likely be together for Saturday's preseason finale at AMALIE Arena versus the Florida Panthers (7 p.m. puck drop) and again once the regular season opens Thursday.
But what about the first and third pairs?
In Tuesday's 6-3 loss at Florida, Mikhail Sergachev got an opportunity to partner with Victor Hedman in a top-pair role. That experiment fizzled a bit, both finishing the night minus-four although tough luck might have had more to do with that abysmal plus-minus rating than anything the two did on the ice.
Thursday, Hedman paired with free agent signing Kevin Shattenkirk to better results, Shattenkirk providing the primary assist on the Bolts' go-ahead goal in a 4-2 Tampa Bay victory over the Panthers.
Video: Shattenkirk on pairing with Hedman
Who pairs with whom in Saturday's final preseason game will likely tell us a lot about what the coaches are thinking for the Opening Night lineup.
"That'll still be a work in progress," Lightning assistant coach Derek Lalonde said. "You can see even in game, we've made some changes to have some different looks. A lot of it has to do with left-right hand. It's just challenging sometimes getting someone on their off hand and with the looks we've had in camp so far and even with the games on who we've dressed and who we haven't, we've had that challenge a little bit. Some guys are more comfortable with it than others. It's a lot to ask sometimes. And there's just certain situations, whether it's a forecheck getting stuck on a breakout, a bad angle, having to play off your back, that's hard to do sometimes on your off hand. I think tomorrow knowing 27 and 81 will probably be together, we'll still be playing around with those lefties and righties."
Shattenkirk said the chemistry between himself and Hedman improved as the game went on Thursday.
"I think being able to watch him too a little bit up in the stands in the first couple of games and obviously from the bench that first night in Florida, I kind of gained an idea of what his game is like," Shattenkirk said. "I know he covers a lot of ground. I don't have to worry about, he doesn't really get beat much. He can recover well. So you just have to be patient. And he likes to kind of be all around the ice, so I think it's just a matter of knowing where he's at and I think when we get the puck offensively we both seem to think the game the same way and we made some really good plays on the offensive blue line last night."
Chemistry is important when determining the pairings. So is handedness. Sergachev has excelled playing on his off hand in the past with the Lightning, but might he be even better using his strong hand? And if he is, how does that shake up the rest of the pairings?
"We're trying to get chemistry. There probably hasn't been enough sample size right now to get a full chemistry, but yes, there's some of that there," Lalonde said. "And I think we want to be fair to Sergey too where he's done well on his off hand, but I think his best is still his strong hand, which is natural for most D. Probably his best hockey in the preseason so far was the second half of last night's game. He just looked a lot more comfortable there, and that was on his natural side."
VERHAEGHE MAKES HIS CASE: After finishing last season as the American Hockey League's leading scorer with 82 points in 76 games for the Syracuse Crunch, forward Carter Verhaeghe entered training camp with a legitimate shot to earn a spot on the Lightning's roster.
His play during the preseason has done nothing to derail that momentum.
Verhaeghe leads the Lightning for scoring this preseason with two goals and three assists in five contests. He's also displayed versatility shuttling between a fourth-line role one game and a top six position the next.
Video: Rutta on increasing physicality
Verhaeghe is pleased with how he's performed in camp but feels there's still another level to his game he'd like to show before the coaches make their final decisions.
"Every day you just want to put your best foot forward and just play and do the best you can and show what you can do every time," he said. "For me, every time I just keep on getting more comfortable and feeling better about my game and everything. I think there is definitely an extra gear to my game that can come out for sure."
Verhaeghe said as camp's progressed, he's gotten more comfortable with his surroundings, which has allowed him to perform at a high level.
"I think it was more nerve-wracking at the start of camp because now I feel like I'm starting to get to know everyone a little better and getting comfortable around the guys and around the coaching staff and what the systems are and everything," Verhaeghe said. "I feel like I'm getting more comfortable than nervous. I think too because it was a long summer and everything, kind of nervous coming in here. There are all these new faces, new guys. You see a lot of these guys on TV all the time. I think that's the big thing. Now, it's kind of just realizing you can play at this level and just every day more comfortable."
ODDS AND ENDS: Alexander Volkov, another prospect like Verhaeghe looking to stick with the Lightning out of training camp and make his NHL debut, did not skate during Friday's practice, the team announcing he was taking a body-maintenance day. His availability for Saturday's preseason finale is still up in the air…Danick Martel and Gemel Smith, two more players vying for a roster spot, wore grey jerseys at Friday's practice, the only players to do so…Shattenkirk and Sergachev continued to work together on the Lightning's second power-play unit, Shattenkirk quarterbacking and Sergachev manning Nikita Kucherov's spot in the right circle. "I think playing with Mikhail, having him on that one-timer side, he's obviously got a lethal shot, but he can make some pretty good passes as well," Shattenkirk said. Lalonde added the pair has looked really comfortable together in practices and that chemistry has translated into the games as well. "I just think they're both comfortable," he said. "They both play with their head up. I think they're both elite power-play type guys. Their practice reps have been very good. I know they've had a couple looks in game situations, and it's been good."