Heading east on I-4 this afternoon, the Tampa Bay Lightning meet the St. Louis Blues for their first preseason game of the season at Amway Center in Orlando. In what's considered a home game for the team in Bolts blue, tonight's 7 p.m. tilt is the first of four consecutive exhibition matches for the Lightning this week.
With the lockout-shortened season last year and no meetings between the Eastern and Western Conference during the regular season, it'll be the first chance for the Lightning to play St. Louis since March 17, 2012, when Tampa Bay was handed a 3-1 loss. The Bolts and Blues also opened their 2011-12 preseason campaign at Scottrade Center almost two years ago to the day and the Lightning were again, handed a 3-1 loss, on the first of home-and-homes against St. Louis.
After nearly a week of practice, today's game features just one group, 20 to be exact, of Tampa Bay's 59 players still a part of training camp. The Blues, who played their first game three days ago, may hold the edge tonight according to head coach Jon Cooper, but Cooper feels the extra practice was needed for Tampa Bay.
"In our minds, you just can't start playing games and go into practice to fix things. Habits have to start in practice," he said. "We wanted those [practices] early to set those standards. This isn't a situation that we are necessarily going to be looking at a scoreboard. We're evaluating and looking at which guys follow the plan."
Not a right-or-wrong formula for when to play your first preseason game according to defenseman Matt Carle, he agreed with his coach on the handful of practices and scrimmages value.
"Certainly for us, trying to hone in on our systems and develop them," Carle said. "We have a big group of guys here and taking those extra days of practice was an advantage I think."
A number of players included in Wednesday's game group are also playing in their first-ever preseason game at the pro-level. Valtteri Filppula, while a veteran of the game, is suiting up for the first time as a member of the Lightning too.
THEIR FIRST TIME
Heading into tonight, second round draft pick Adam Erne is slated to appear and he couldn't quite narrow his emotions down to one distinct feeling when asked about the game.
"It's a little bit of everything," Erne said. "I'm a little bit nervous, a little bit excited, I don't know what to expect. Everything will go away after I go on the ice for the first shift or so."
He's also excited to appear on a roster against a number of players he's "been watching for a long time."
Nate Thompson, who reminisced about his first preseason game in the NHL with the Boston Bruins in "a pretty hostile environment" in Montreal, offered advice for Erne and other players who will be skating Wednesday.
"Just play inside yourself," Thompson said. "Play your game. Everybody got here for a reason, so enjoy the moment. When you're thinking too much and worrying about different things, that's when you're not playing your game."
Understanding that nerves come into play, Cooper said there was no sort of special talk with any of this year's newbies.
"You've got to get your feet wet at some point," he said. "Everybody's got to start somewhere and might as well get it out of the way early."
He also said that "guys will start to separate themselves" throughout the next four days.
ODDS 'N ENDS
Cooper said that not every player would see action in one of the four games and some players would likely see action in back-to-back games.
Netminders Cedric Desjardins and Kristers Gudlevskis will both see time in net today, most likely making the switch at the game's midpoint.
Wednesday marks the second time that St. Louis and the Lightning will meet in Orlando. The first time (the first-ever NHL game played at the Amway Center), now-Lightning netminder Ben Bishop helped lead the Blues to a 4-3 win.