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Burns: 3 Things we learned from the preseason finale

Beat writer Bryan Burns recaps the Lightning's 1-0 shootout loss to the Panthers on Saturday

by Bryan Burns / TampaBayLightning.com

The Tampa Bay Lightning concluded the preseason with a 1-0 shootout loss to the Florida Panthers Saturday at AMALIE Arena, the Bolts finishing the exhibition schedule with a 2-3-2 record.

Both goaltenders - Andrei Vasilevskiy from the Lightning and Sergei Bobrovsky of Florida - were in mid-season form.

Vasilevskiy stopped all 28 shots he faced in regulation and overtime but couldn't fully slow down Vincent Trocheck's shootout attempt in the only puck that would beat either goaltender all night. Bobrovsky was slightly better, going 26-for-26 on save opportunities and making a few top-notch saves throughout the contest to keep the Lightning off the scoreboard.

Now, after three practice runs, the teams will battle for real Thursday night.

Tampa Bay opens the 2019-20 regular season at home against these same Panthers, the two teams matching up again two days later in Sunrise for the Bolts first road contest.

And these games will count.

With the preseason in the rear-view mirror, here are Three Things from the finale.

Video: Cooper on preseason finale

1. INJURY CONCERNS
Before Saturday's game, Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper said the main goal in preseason game No. 7 is to get through the game unscathed.

The Lightning didn't reach that goal.

Cedric Paquette was upended by Riley Stillman in the first period and crashed hard into the wall. When he got to his feet, he threw his gloves to the ground and skated directly to the locker room. Paquette didn't return, and Cooper suggested he might not be ready for the season opener.

"Ceddy will probably be a little bit of a battle if he's going to be available right away," Cooper said. "We're going to have to wait and see."

When the second period started, Paquette expectedly wasn't on the bench. But neither was Tyler Johnson, who didn't appear to sustain an injury but nonetheless didn't play the rest of the game. Cooper said Johnson was held out more for precautionary reasons.

"Johnny I'm not really worried about," Cooper said.

The Lightning are already down a significant piece as Brayden Point recovers from offseason hip surgery. With the status of Paquette and Johnson still up in the air, the Bolts might be missing a few more for Thursday's opener.

Video: Verhaeghe on preseason experience

2. THE CASE FOR VERHAEGHE
Carter Verhaeghe ended the 2019 preseason campaign as Tampa Bay's leading scorer with two goals and three assists in six games.

But even more than his ability to consistently put up points, Verhaeghe displayed an all-around game that has positioned himself well to earn a spot on the Lightning roster.

Verhaeghe didn't get on the scoresheet in the preseason finale against Florida. He did, however, come the closest by displaying a plethora of skilled moves to free himself and get into good scoring chances.

Only the high-level play of Bobrovsky kept him from finding the back of the net.

"Nobody stayed here because they had to. Everybody stayed here because they earned it," Cooper said when asked about the impression Verhaeghe made in camp. "Hags, he's played himself on. You can look at the stats and say, 'Oh look, he led our team in scoring in the preseason.' That really wasn't it though. It's how his whole game has involved. Actually a pretty pleasant surprise from watching the camp two years ago to where he is now. But you go down the list of guys that have kind of inched their way forward here and really shown growth and improvement, and he is definitely one of them. He's made a good case from himself."

Verhaeghe's slickest scoring chance came in the second period. Leading the rush into the offensive zone, the 24 year old went between his legs to split a pair of defenders through the right circle and give himself an open forehand shot from the slot, a shot that just nicked the crossbar as it sailed high.

On Friday, Verhaeghe said his comfort level was improving every day and he still had another level to reach in his game.

Verhaeghe appeared to reach that level Saturday against Florida.

"I gave it my all," he said. "I went out there every day and tried to keep on improving. I thought every day I got better, and that's all I could really do."

Video: Sergachev on defensive effort

3. WITKOWSKI THE WINGER
When the Tampa Bay Lightning signed free agent Luke Witkowski for his second stint with the team, he was brought in as a defenseman, this despite the fact he played a bit of forward for the Lightning toward the end of his first go-round with the team and continued to slot in at wing during his two seasons with the Detroit Red Wings.

But over the last couple preseason games, Witkowski has drawn into the Lightning lineup as the fourth line right wing alongside Paquette and Pat Maroon. That trio displayed a physicality and a willingness to mix it up in the Bolts' 4-2 victory at Florida on Thursday, Cooper saying the rest of the team stood a little taller with that trio sticking up for them.

Again on Saturday, Cooper used that combination as his fourth line, Witkowski back at right wing instead of on defense, to similar results, despite the loss of Paquette for the second and third periods.

"They haven't been a liability on the ice," Cooper said. "Actually, you could make an argument they've really driven our team the last couple games."

"They're a big help," Mikhail Sergachev added. "Our top guys don't have to do the dirty work. We have guys like them and still they make plays. Everybody on our team makes plays. They're responsible. They play a tough game. Everybody's so afraid of them. Nobody wants to go in a corner with them. It's just huge for us."

Witkowski has been so impressive in his new role it seems his position shift might be more permanent. If nothing else, he's proven he's versatile enough to play either position well.

But, with eight defensemen still in camp and the team unlikely to carry more than that on its Opening Night roster, Witkowski's spot on the team and value to the Lightning might be as a forward. 

"We experimented with that a few years ago when he was with us," Cooper said. "We're looking to build the best team to put on the ice for game one and moving forward. He has the ability to play both positions. We have seen him much more at D than we have at forward and to see if there's some chemistry and what kind of element he brings to us the last two games, he's played at forward, and I think he's done an excellent job for us."

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