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Chemistry more important than results for Bolts in preseason finale

Tampa Bay hopes to build off a strong showing in Thursday's victory over Florida

by Bryan Burns /

The Tampa Bay Lightning conclude the preseason schedule tonight when they host the Florida Panthers at AMALIE Arena, the third of three-straight games against the Panthers to wrap up the exhibition slate.

The Lightning and Panthers split their first two meetings, Florida doubling up Tampa Bay 6-3 on Tuesday before the Bolts got revenge Thursday in a 4-2 victory, both games played at the BB&T Center in Sunrise.

And while a victory for the Lightning in the preseason finale would be good for momentum heading into the regular season, tonight's game is more about developing chemistry among different line combinations and defensive pairings while continuing to build on positive trends from Thursday's win.

"I want to see a lot of what we saw in the last game," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said following his team's morning skate at AMALIE Arena. "We got better as that game went on. We competed extremely hard. After the first period, I think we had 11 shot attempts and after that we were 20 something in the second and same in the third. That's more of the attitude and what we need to have."

Video: Cooper on final preseason game

The Lightning were pleased with the fourth line combination of Pat Maroon, Cedric Paquette and Luke Witkowski from Thursday's win, Cooper saying after the game that group allowed the rest of the team to "stand a little taller."

Those three will get a chance to work with each other again in Saturday's finale, Witkowski continuing his role as the Lightning's swiss army knife, able to slot in wherever the coaching staff needs him.

"They went out there and they got us a big goal, but just the way they played the whole game and the physicality they bring, you can tell when they're on the ice, not everybody wants to go get the puck," Lightning forward Yanni Gourde said of the Maroon-Paquette-Witkowski trio. "I think it just gives us an advantage whenever our other lines are on the ice. Kind of a boost from them."

The Lightning have experimented with Maroon on the first power-play unit throughout training camp as well, partly because of the absence of Brayden Point and partly to see what his skill set can add to that group. Tampa Bay's power play doesn't need much tweaking. It converted 28.2 percent of its chances last season, tops in the league.

But Maroon brings a different dynamic that could give the group more versatility.

"I think it's a little similar to what we had last year," Cooper said. "Miller was there quite a bit. Size, good hands, courage to stand in front of the net, (Maroon's) got all of those. Good puck retriever. The only thing he doesn't have, he doesn't take face-offs like Miller could. But, again, it's preseason. We're giving guys different looks in different situations, especially new players. We don't know exactly everything they can do until you put them in those situations, so that's why he's getting a look there."

Video: Paquette on performance in last game

Hedman will partner with Kevin Shattenkirk tonight, the second-straight game those two will work together. Braydon Coburn and Mikhail Sergachev will reprise their pairing from last season while Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak, the lone Bolts' defensive pairing that seems to be set, will skate together.

Tonight's finale gives the coaching staff one more chance to look at the pairings and the chemistry defenseman are able to build with one another to have a better idea what those pairs will look like on Opening Night.

"We're trying guys in different spots, but when guys are on their righty-lefties it makes them a little more comfortable, a little bit easier to see the ice," Cooper said. "I thought both (Hedman and Shattenkirk) had their best games of the preseason (Thursday). Each one of them is getting better by the game. You're looking to see if guys are feeling comfortable with each other. The way we run our D, it's not like the same two guys stay with each other. Probably (McDonagh) and (Cernak) will have a little bit more continuity together, but they're used in a different role. Some different guys have played with Heddy, whether it's been Sergey or Shattenkirk and they've both done well. So it's good for us to be able to see that can work."

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