All things considered, the 2018 preseason was a success for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
After a dismal 0-2 start, getting blown out a combined 10-2 by Carolina in two games, the Lightning improved with each outing, winning four of their final five preseason games, including the exhibition finale 3-2 Saturday night against the Florida Panthers in Sunrise.
The Bolts took the final two games from the Panthers over the best-of-three series to close the preseason, including rallying in the third period to win the rubber match. Florida opened scoring on Jonathan Huberdeau's goal 11 minutes into the game, but the Lightning responded just 1:01 later, Cory Conacher getting on the board for his first goal of the preseason.
Mike Hoffman put Florida back in the lead with a power-play marker in the second period. Mathieu Joseph scored his team-leading fourth goal of the preseason to tie the game 2-2 with 13:29 to go, and J.T. Miller provided the game-winner at the post, tapping in Mikhail Sergachev's shot/pass from between the circles with 6:49 remaining.
Tampa Bay will see this same Florida squad on Opening Night October 6 at AMALIE Arena. It will be the fourth time the teams play in 12 days.
How were the Lightning able to close out the preseason with a victory over the Panthers? And who stood out for the Bolts?
We'll discuss in Three Things we learned from winning the finale.
1. THE TOP LINE
Tampa Bay's best line Saturday night wasn't its No. 1 line of J.T. Miller, Steven Stamkos and Mathieu Joseph, although they did account for the final two goals.
And it wasn't the potent trio of Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point and Yanni Gourde.
The Bolts' fourth line was the spark plug that ignited the Lightning. Perhaps a preview of the fourth line the Lightning will line up for Opening Night, the combination of Danick Martel, Cedric Paquette and Cory Conacher provided energy, grit and toughness on the back end of the Bolts' forward group. They were able to turn the tide of the game right after Florida scored in the first period, Martel - a late addition to the lineup replacing Adam Erne -- wheeling around the net and dishing a pretty pass across the crease and onto the back post for a Conacher to skate onto and slam into the back of the net for the immediate response.
Conacher scored his first goal of the preseason. Martel tallied his first point in a Lightning sweater.
But their impact wasn't limited to the scoresheet.
They were tough and physical and a pain to play against. Lightning fans have witnessed firsthand the edge to Paquette's game. But the newcomer Martel, who said he was like another Yanni Gourde during his first day in training camp, had that relentlessness to his game Saturday night Gourde has so often showcased. He also drew the ire of the Panthers on multiple occasions, much like Gourde too.
And Conacher showed the skillset that makes him such a valuable offensive weapon while also displaying some grit in his game as well.
The fourth line laid the blueprint Saturday night that the rest of the Bolts followed.
For the regular season, Tampa Bay's top three lines appear set, in whatever combination head coach Jon Cooper chooses to deploy his top nine forwards. But a number of personnel groupings could make sense on the fourth line with Ryan Callahan out until early November.
The combo the Lightning used Saturday could be the one they use next Saturday too.
2. WORK IN PROGRESS
Tampa Bay gave up another power-play goal in Saturday's victory, the eighth power-play goal the Lightning allowed during the preseason.
The Lightning, frankly, weren't very good on the penalty kill last season, ranking 28th in the NHL at 76.1 percent.
The unit's performance in the preseason hasn't been any more encouraging.
Opposing teams converted 8-of-27 power-play opportunities against the Lightning during the preseason, a 29.6 percent success rate. That's a problem. The Bolts gave up another power-play marker in the preseason finale, Mike Hoffman converting the Panthers' first power play relatively quickly into the opportunity, smashing a shot from the right circle past Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The Lightning were better on the penalty kill as the preseason wore on. Carolina was 5-for-12 on the power play. Take out those two games, and the Bolts were 11-of-13 on the penalty kill.
Another positive? When the Lightning absolutely needed a kill on Saturday holding a one-goal lead with less than six minutes to go, they got it. Also, when Florida pulled goalie Roberto Luongo with a little more than two minutes to go - not technically a power-play situation but an extra-man advantage - the Lightning again held firm, Vasilevskiy making a couple good saves and the defenders in front adding some timely blocked shots to preserve the win.
But the ineffective play overall of the penalty kill during the preseason is something that bears watching once the regular season begins.
3. HARD TO DENY
It's going to be awfully difficult for the Lightning to leave Mathieu Joseph off the Opening Night roster.
His speed was on display every time he stepped on the ice, he got better with every game he played, he was a consistently good performer - an area Cooper stressed would be key for any young prospect hoping to make the squad -- and he was the Lightning's most productive player during the preseason.
Joseph score the game-tying goal at 6:34 of the third period, hopping onto a loose puck and shooting past Luongo for the unassisted tally, his fourth goal of the preseason to lead all Lightning players.
Joseph was also Tampa Bay's preseason scoring leader after notching eight points, outpacing J.T. Miller (2 goals, 3 assists).
After Thursday's victory in Orlando, Joseph said, "I'm playing one day at a time. It's out of my control. I'm just trying to work hard and play my game, my 200-foot game."
The decision whether to keep Joseph on the Opening Night roster may be out of his control.
But he's certainly played well enough and consistent enough against good competition that those who are in control have to like what they see.