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Burns: Three things we learned in Bolts preseason finale

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning concluded the preseason with a 4-1 victory Saturday over the Florida Panthers to finish the exhibition schedule with five wins in six games. The real season begins Thursday, October 9, at Amalie Arena against Florida, but looking ahead to Opening Night, let’s flash back to Saturday night to see what can be taken away from the Lightning’s preseason performance and what can be expected from the team during the 2014-15 season. 

1. LITTLE KNOWN FACT: KUCHEROV IS RUSSIAN FOR GOAL-SCORER EXTRAORDINARE

Playing his first NHL season last year, Lightning F Nikita Kucherov scored nine goals in 52 games. During the 2014 preseason, Kucherov nearly matched that total, finding the back of the net six times, but this time in only six games. Saturday night, Kucherov stole a pass in Florida’s end of the rink and, alone on goal, shot past Panthers goalie Al Montoya with the confidence and composure of a NHL vet. The 21-year-old led the league in preseason goals, his next nearest competitor two goals behind, and finished tied for fourth – along with teammate Vladislav Namestnikov – in the points race with seven.

But, maybe the most impressive aspect of Kucherov’s preseason play has been on the defensive side, where head coach Jon Cooper said the Russian is “night and day” ahead of where he was a year ago.

“He had a great summer. He’s fit. He looks like he’s a step faster. But, the reason he’s having success, he’s always on the right side of the puck now…He’s making defensive plays. When watching video, (Kucherov) is in a lot of these positive clips. It’s fun to see. What he has to do now is not hang his hat on his preseason.”

It’ll be interesting to see if Kucherov can have anywhere near the level of success once the NHL regular season, a decidedly different animal, begins, but, for the preseason anyway, Nikita Kucherov was the Lightning’s biggest scoring threat.

2. BEN BISHOP IS BACK

For anyone who doubted whether goaltender Ben Bishop was healthy enough to start in Tampa Bay’s net Opening Night following offseason wrist surgery, the 27-year-old quickly erased those fears with his 36-save performance Saturday against Florida.

After playing a game-and-a-half with little work, Bishop said before Saturday’s outing he needed to face anywhere from 30 to 40 shots to feel ready to start the season. The Panthers obliged, sending 37 shots his way, and Bishop was up to the task on nearly every one of them. During one fast-paced sequence in the second period, the Panthers had five tries on the doorstep but couldn’t poke the puck through Bishop’s 6-foot-7 frame.

“I think (I’m ready). I hope so. We’ll find out Thursday, right,” Bishop said, laughing. “…It’s two-and-a-half games, and I feel pretty good.”

The lone goal Bishop allowed came on the power play, when a shot from the left wing was tipped midway to goal and arced unexpectedly into the net, a flukish goal that surprised everybody, Bishop included.

In 150 total preseason minutes, Bishop made 72 saves and gave up just four goals for a 1.60 goals-against average. More importantly, he also finished with a 3-0-0 record.

3. TAMPA BAY’S DEFENSE WILL BE BETTER IN 2014-15

Maybe the most incredible stat from Tampa Bay’s preseason, the Lightning let in only eight goals in six contests, an average of 1.33 goals allowed a game, by far the best mark in the NHL preseason (Pittsburgh, second-best, gave up 1.83 goals a game).

Last season in his first full year as head coach, Cooper challenged his team to cut half a goal from its goals-allowed average, which the Lightning accomplished, falling from 3.13 goals allowed a game in 2012-13 to 2.62 last season.

A similar reduction would be near impossible for the Bolts this season because, as Cooper noted, “we’d set defensive records that haven’t been set before,” but the trend downward must continue if the team wishes to make a deep postseason run.

“I think the Montreal series was a clear cut for us of we had holes in our defensive game,” Cooper said following Saturday’s victory. “I think we shored that up a little bit in some of the personnel we brought in. We’ve been tweaking things in our system, how we can be little bit harder to play against in the D zone, play a little quicker D as we call it, and it’s been working so far. It’s all well and good now a few days before the season starts, but we just have to carry that in [to the regular season].”

Allowing eight goals in six preseason games, though, is a pretty good start.

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