A handful of regulars will make their 2015-16 debut tonight when the Tampa Bay Lightning host the Florida Panthers at Amalie Arena in preseason game No. 3 for the Bolts.
Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle, Anton Stralman and Jason Garrison are all on the game roster and expected to play. For the 30-year-old Boyle, the preseason is a time to make sure the body is physically ready for the demands of the seven-month-long NHL regular season.
“After the (first preseason) game, you look back and see, ‘Am I in shape? Am I ready to go? Can I start the season?’ he said. “Typically, that first one, you’re sucking wind a little bit. I think that’s probably the only difference (between preseason and regular season), making sure that you’re ready to peak for October 8.”
Entering his ninth season in the league, Boyle said he still gets excited returning to the ice following the offseason, even if it is just for a preseason game.
“It’s going to be fun to get out there,” he said. “I know it’s not regular season, but it’s a meaningful game for sure, getting ready for an important season for us. We want to build off last year, obviously. That started a couple months ago in training, but now we get to play a game. That’s why we play. That’s the most fun part.”
The Lightning are playing just their third preseason game. So far, each preseason opponent has had more ice time. Nashville already had two games under its belt before playing in Tampa Bay for the Bolts’ preseason opener.
Likewise, tonight’s opponent Florida has played three preseason games to Tampa Bay’s two.
“It’s weird how our schedules worked out,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “…I think Dallas [Saturday’s opponent] is going to be in a similar situation. A lot of these teams have their exhibition games front loaded. Ours are back loaded, and so it’s a little different with the fact that we’ve got guys playing their first game and we’re already well into a week of camp.”
RETURN OF BIG BEN
Ben Bishop, another Bolt getting his first preseason game tonight, will presumably start in net as he was the first goalie off the ice at morning skate.
Bishop is making his first game appearance since Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final in Chicago. Even as a seven-year NHL veteran and an entrenched number one goalie in the league, Bishop said he still feels a bit anxious before his first preseason start.
“Anytime you go on the ice, you get a little bit of jitters,” he said. “You always get a little bit nervous for that first game.”
Bishop is coming off another outstanding year in which he broke his own Tampa Bay franchise record for wins in a season with 40.
Kristers Gudlevskis, meanwhile, is the other Lightning goalie on the roster for tonight’s game and will split time tonight with Bishop according to Cooper. Gudlevskis suffered an upper-body injury during the final game of the Lightning Prospect Tournament two weeks ago but began taking shots earlier this week and looks to be fully recovered.
“With (Andrei) Vasilevskiy being out, this is a big time for somebody to take the spot behind Bish, and for Gudie, you want him to have every opportunity to do so while he’s healthy,” Cooper said. “It was a little nerve-racking when he got hurt in the rookie tournament, but it wasn’t serious and he’s back. He’s getting a little taste in camp. It’s good.”
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos and second-year phenom Jonathan Drouin, along with Nikita Kucherov, skated on a line together during morning skate.
Stamkos and Drouin have been paired together for much of training camp and were on the same line in the preseason opener against Nashville with Drouin scoring a goal early in the third period.
Cooper, however, said not to read too much into the training camp lines.
“We do want to see them together and see if some chemistry starts coming together, and this is the time to do that,” Cooper said. “…I always say that first game everybody plays in the preseason is you kind of push that one to the side, but now this will be the second game together. They’ve got bumped around a bit. Now their time and space, their game awareness should be slowly coming into play. We hope that a little more chemistry comes about with these two because they’re both great talents.”
Cooper also reiterated it’s good to see how different pairings and line combinations work during the preseason in case adjustments due to injury need to be made in the regular season.
Said Cooper: “The mere fact that you can just start throwing these guys out here, saying, ‘Well, if you put Johnson or Kucherov or Palat or Stamkos’ or you keep going down the list, and everybody seems to be a pretty dynamic player, it’s good to have in the coach’s arsenal.”