The first two preseason games for the Tampa Bay Lightning haven't necessarily been inspiring for Lightning fans looking to put last season's first-round playoff exit firmly in their rear-view mirror.
Tampa Bay has yet to score a goal in 120 minutes of exhibition action. Carolina thoroughly outplayed the Lightning 3-0 in the preseason opener for both teams Tuesday at AMALIE Arena. The Bolts were a little better in the rematch Wednesday in Raleigh, but a veteran-laden Hurricanes lineup dispatched the Lightning 2-0.
As discouraging as the scores may have looked from both of those games, the Lightning are anything but heading into preseason game No. 3 tonight at home versus the Nashville Predators. It's all part of the process of instilling the systems the team will play with, establishing the habits that will be part of the foundation of the team and gearing up for the start of the season October 3 against Florida.
Video: Verhaeghe on playing his game
"I know that we didn't come out on top in the game at Carolina, but our guys competed hard," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "It was a much different feel in the game than it was in game one. As this camp has gone on, I think you'll see the intensity amp up a little bit more. Hopefully how hard the guys played at Carolina, I expect our guys to now elevate it a little bit better tonight."
If you look at Tampa Bay's results from last preseason, a similar pattern begins to emerge. In 2018, Tampa Bay was outscored 10-2 by Carolina in two exhibition losses to start the preseason. It wasn't until game three when the Lightning started to hit their stride, winning handily 5-1 over the Predators in Nashville. The Bolts followed that victory with another a day later over the Predators and ended up winning four of their last five preseason games.
The Lightning are hoping history repeats itself, starting tonight against the Preds.
"Every day I think everyone's getting a little more comfortable here, getting on the ice," said forward Carter Verhaeghe, who will be making his second appearance this preseason tonight. "In the summer, you don't skate as much. Here, you're skating every day. In the summer, you're skating twice a week or something, so everyone's getting more comfortable and everyone's getting better. Guys are getting into their first game tonight, so it'll be good."
The Lightning lineup tonight will have a little more firepower to it too. Reigning NHL MVP Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat are all making their preseason debuts. Free agent goalie signing Curtis McElhinney will also see his first action of the preseason and is likely to be between the pipes the entire game.
Video: Hedman on preseason debut
"It'll be fun," Hedman said of getting in his first preseason game. "Practicing and stuff like that is always important, but to get into game action, it's been a while. I'm looking forward to it, work on the details in our game, and for myself, it's all about trying to get back to your old habits, to play my game as much as I can. Go out there and play hard tonight and have some fun."
Hedman paired with Mikhail Sergachev during the team's morning skate Friday. That duo is one the Lightning want to get a long look at during the preseason, the thought being Sergachev might be ready to take the next step professionally and move into a top-pairing spot alongside the perennial Norris Trophy candidate. Sergachev gained plenty of confidence over the summer playing a major role for Russia at the World Championships, and Hedman said the 21 year old has been playing with "an extra step" so far in training camp.
"He's obviously more mature in his game," Hedman said. "He's trying to make all those small details in the game right. It all starts in our own end. We're a pairing that obviously has some skill offensively, but it all starts in our end. Tonight, we've got to be a pair that plays hard in our own end, make it tough on the opponent and spend as little time as possible in our own end. It's all about breakouts, physicality, all those small details, try to play in the offensive zone as much as we can. Just have an overall solid 60-minute game and keep working on the things that we did well last year together."