The first thing Ryan McDonagh and his Tampa Bay Lightning teammates searched for when their training camp schedule was released late last week was the date of their opening scrimmage.
For over four months, the Lightning haven't played a competitive game. The National Hockey League paused on March 12. Since then, the Bolts have trained on their own and were able to get together in small groups of first six and then 12 players during Phase 2 of the league's Return to Play Plan for informal workouts.
But that first competitive game - even if just in a training camp setting against their own teammates - was another step in a positive direction of eventually awarding a Stanley Cup at the end of the 2019-20 season.
Wednesday, day three of training camp, was one Lightning players had been looking forward to for some time.
And that enthusiasm translated into a spirited 30-minute intra-squad scrimmage that had a lot of pace, a decent amount of contact and, surprisingly, not too many of the errors or sloppiness one would expect.
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"Guys were anxious to scrimmage," McDonagh said. "For those guys that have been through the small groups, it's a lot of drills, maybe some small games, but there's nothing like 5-on-5. You can't emulate it, no matter what drill you do, the bounces of the pucks, the changes in the game. It was definitely a day guys were looking forward to…Guys were anxious that it wasn't going to be five, six, seven days before we started scrimmaging. I think the coaches realized that, and it was definitely a lot of fun and energy out there to get this thing rolling."
The Lightning roster was split in half with the group that had been practicing during the morning session over the first two days of camp comprising the Blue team and the White team consisting of the afternoon group.
The Blue team, which featured Andrei Vasilevskiy in net, a top line of Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov and Carter Verhaeghe and Norris Trophy candidate Victor Hedman on defenseman, bested the White team 2-0 in a low-scoring affair.
Ondrej Palat netted the game-winner, pouncing on a loose puck off a blocked shot in the slot and firing past White goalie Curtis McElhinney late in the game, which featured two halves 15 minutes in length. Palat's linemates Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn came over to hug him after scoring as the Lightning got a taste what it will feel like to score and celebrate in an empty arena, a scenario they'll face once the games count for good in Toronto.
"When I scored I think Cirelli was more excited than me," Palat joked.
The Blue team tacked on an empty-net goal in the dying seconds for the 2-0 final.
"I think the thing I was impressed with was it wasn't too sloppy for the most part," said McDonagh, who was one of the leaders of the White team along with Erik Cernak, Mikhail Sergachev and Tyler Johnson. We stress a lot of structure and being in the right spots and taking care of the puck when it's on our stick. Wasn't too many turnovers and wasn't too many odd-man looks, so for the first day that was encouraging and relatively low-scoring game. It's somewhat odd for us, but at the end of the day we want to play the right way and take care of the puck and I thought that was a good start to our scrimmages here in camp."
The Lightning have two more scrimmages built into their training camp schedule Monday, July 20 and Friday, July 24. The NHL also announced the exhibition schedule for teams competing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Bolts facing in-state rival Florida July 29 at noon in Toronto.
"The coaching staff knows it's one thing to practice drills and have a lot of time and space. It's another being a game situation where you don't have as much time and you have to think quick," McDonagh said. "I think it's good for us to get into a scrimmage here relatively quick, and we've got a handful more of them going forward. Those are where you've got to make your adjustments, make your strides."
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Lightning coach Jon Cooper said he was "really happy" with the way the scrimmage unfolded. Each day after his team's training session, Cooper has made it a point on media video conference calls to praise the players' preparedness and their positivity in a trying situation.
The circumstances surrounding the return to play might not be ideal, but the Lightning have taken an attitude of embracing those challenges and meeting them head on.
"It was fast. It was uptempo. The guys were competing hard. I really liked what went on today," Cooper said of the scrimmage. "I wasn't sure what to expect. You know you're not going to see any big, physical hits or anything, but guys were taking guys out. Guys were being responsible. You look for the compete level, and it was most definitely there today. We've got a day off tomorrow, so maybe that had a little bit to do with it. But I'll tell you, for these first three days I couldn't be happier with what's going on, and hopefully this continues because on the compete level we've taken some big steps."
Cooper said he and his staff will continue to emphasize structure and play over the next couple of days of camp and then get into special teams work next week, which should alter the pace of practices a bit.