Tampa Bay played near flawlessly in its 5-0 dismantling of the Florida Panthers during their exhibition game Wednesday prior to their start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"We allowed three breakaways. I don't think we loved that," Alex Killorn said, struggling to find faults in his team's play when asked what he didn't like from Wednesday's game. "I think that's something we could tighten up. We've looked at that, but other than that it was a pretty good game."
Remarkably, the Lightning didn't have two of their main pieces in the shutout win over the Panthers. Bolts captain Steven Stamkos continues to recover from a lower-body injury sustained during Phase 2 of the NHL's Return to Play Plan. He's practiced fully with the team since the team arrived in Toronto but didn't play in the exhibition and might not be ready in time for Monday's round robin opener against the Washington Capitals.
And Victor Hedman, a Norris Trophy finalist for the fourth-consecutive season, also wasn't available for the exhibition win as he remained behind in Tampa to attend to personal matters. Hedman arrived in the Toronto bubble Friday and rejoined his teammates during Saturday's practice. He'll have two days of training before the playoff opener against the Caps.
That the Lightning were able to completely dominate the Panthers Wednesday with two of their best players absent shows just how impressive their performance was.
"Those are two pretty important guys for our team," Killorn said. "We played well against Florida without them in the lineup, but we realize how much they bring to our team."
The Lightning will have two practices Saturday and Sunday with their full cast of players to prepare for Washington.
"It's really important, just getting on the right foot right away and to have a full team," Tyler Johnson said of having everybody available to practice. "We've been missing guys here and there throughout the camp, but if we can have the full team out there and get our whole lines set and get some chemistry going, I think that's huge. Next couple of days are big just because the next game, these really start to matter. We don't have too much time before the real playoffs start, and we've got to get rolling right away."
Stamkos has trained fully with the Lightning in three practice sessions since the team arrived in Toronto. On Friday, he played the right wing on a line alongside Killorn (left wing) and Anthony Cirelli (center). Whether that combination sticks at the start of the playoffs and through the duration remains to be seen, but it would appear the Lightning like the look of their forward combinations currently, particularly with the success Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov had in Wednesday's exhibition, combining for four of the Bolts' five goals and 10 points total.
The remaining lines over the last two practices were Barclay Goodrow (LW), Johnson (C) and Blake Coleman (RW) as the third group and Pat Maroon (LW), Yanni Gourde (C) and Cedric Paquette as the fourth line.
"That's something we're definitely looking at," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said when asked if the current line combinations will stick when the team starts the postseason. "We've got a little time. Unlike most teams, a lot of the teams are playing starting today, and we've got a luxury of three more games before we play for keeps. And so getting looks at guys in different situations is what we're doing, and it's the same up and down the lineup whether it's the D or the forwards. That's something we've used in the past and we might go ahead and use in the future here, but I don't think anything's set in stone yet."
The three round robin games aren't do-or-die scenarios like the best-of-five qualifying round the fifth through 12th seeds in each conference have to play, but the Lightning are treating them as such according to Killorn. They're also a chance for the Lightning to improve and round their game into the form they'll need it to be in to go on an extended postseason run.
"Just because these aren't necessarily do-or-die games, they're still seeding games, still games and points that we want," Johnson said. "But the most important thing is that we're playing at the best we can going up into our actual do-or-die playoffs."