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Change in expectations greet Bolts for 2014-15 opener

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop can remember how, prior to the start of last season, nobody was picking the Lightning to make the playoffs.

In fact, most prognosticators weren’t even talking about the Lightning.

“Last year, people were picking us to finish last, and we didn’t listen to that,” Bishop said. “We just went out there and played hockey.”

Now, with the start of the 2014-15 regular season a day away, expectations are considerably higher for the Lightning, coming off of a season in which the team surprised the pundits by surpassing the 100-point total, finishing second in the Atlantic Division and claiming the third seed for the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

“People are picking us to finish at the top,” Bishop said. “Same thing, we’re not going to listen to it…

“It doesn’t really change a thing.”

Tampa Bay opens the regular season 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Amalie Arena against the Florida Panthers. The Hockey News, SportsNet and CBSSports.com have all predicted the Lightning to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.

“It’s nice to be (noticed) around the league as potentially one of the top teams, but that’s where the work comes in,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “We have to make sure we fulfill our own expectations of coming in and wanting to learn and wanting to get better, and we’ve done that so far.”

Lightning head coach Jon Cooper doesn’t buy into the increased expectations, saying the team has yet to prove anything.

“We’re on a 4-game losing streak, that’s the way I look at it,” Cooper said. “Our last four meaningful games, we lost them all [to Montreal in the Eastern Conference Playoffs]. We have a lot to prove I think to ourselves, and how are we going to rebound from what happened in the playoffs?”

One thing that has changed from the close of last season is the general health of the team, including a pair of its superstars, as it heads into the 2014-15 season.

Stamkos, who missed 45 games with a broken leg and wasn’t the same player after coming back for the close of the season, said he’s feeling the best he’s felt since the injury occurred  in Boston on November 11, 2013.

“That’s what’s got me excited, knowing how much better it feels compared to when I ended the year last year,” Stamkos said. “…Even mentally, I’m in a much better state, just going out there and reacting to plays instead of having to try to worry about protecting certain parts of your body before you make those plays.”

Bishop played the second half of the 2013-14 season with a beat-up wrist and missed the playoff series against Montreal with an elbow injury. He had corrective surgery on the wrist during the offseason.

“When he got hurt in the Edmonton game, we knew there was nothing we could do to fix it until the summer,” Cooper said. “He had to change his game where we don’t have those issues now, so I’m pretty confident hopefully a healthy Ben Bishop plays a little bit better than a banged-up Ben Bishop.”

ROSTER MOVES

The Lightning placed RW Richard Panik on waivers Wednesday. The former second round pick in the 2009 Draft skated in 50 games for the Bolts in 2013-14, scoring three goals with ten assists.

The Lightning will know by noon Thursday whether Panik has cleared waivers and can be sent to their American Hockey League affiliate in Syracuse.

“Players didn’t play themselves out [of the team],” Cooper said. “Players played themselves on and they passed players. I think that’s what made our camp pretty competitive. I could not walk into that room and say to one of the guys ‘you know what, you didn’t cut the mustard.’”

D Slater Koekkoek and G Andrei Vasilevskiy, a pair of players reassigned to Syracuse on September 27 were included on the Opening Night roster the Lightning submitted to the league by the 5 p.m. deadline on Tuesday.

Koekkoek and Vasilevskiy took the spots of Andrej Sustr and Nikita Kucherov, but the switch is only a temporary paper move made for salary cap reasons. Both Sustr and Kucherov will be reinstated to the roster in time for Thursday’s game against Florida.  

INJURY UPDATES

F Brenden Morrow was put on injured reserve Tuesday retroactive to last week with back spasms, but Cooper said he expects the 15-year NHL veteran to be ready to go Thursday against Florida.

"I hope he’s available,” Cooper said. “He’s a veteran presence. Those are guys that we went out to have in our lineup…He looked really good out here the last few practices.”

Cooper said Jonathan Drouin is progressing well from a slight fracture of his right thumb and, although not likely to play against Florida, could see the ice if it was absolutely necessary.

“He’s really close,” Cooper said. “We need to put him in a position where he can see optimal success. If we truly needed him this second, he could answer the bell. But, we want to make sure he is NHL ready, healthy and there’s no lingering effects of anything on him.”

BETWEEN THE PIPES

Although it hasn’t been announced, the decision to give Bishop the first Opening Night start of his career is a foregone conclusion. Bishop, who sat behind Anders Lindback last season on Opening Night, had a breakout year in goal during the 2013-14 season, setting franchise marks for wins (37), save percentage (.924) and goals-against average (2.23).

“Ben had a phenomenal year,” Cooper said. “He was a rock for us back there. If he can give us that every single year, or really close to that, I’d have to say we’d be pretty happy.”

Cooper is hoping Bishop can continue playing consistently in 2014-15, especially now that his body is feeling as good as it has in a long time.

“It’s a little bit more comforting to know there’s nothing lingering, the ankle, the elbow, the wrist, all those things he got nicked up during the year,” Cooper said.

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