As the Lightning prepare to open the season on Friday, here are some random thoughts on the team's recently-completed preseason (plus a couple of other items).
-The Lightning wrapped up the preseason with their strongest overall game and that's a good sign heading into the regular season. In their 3-2 overtime triumph at Nashville last Saturday, the Lightning were solid in all three zones, cut down on defensive breakdowns and had an exceptional special teams game (two PPG scored and none allowed). Hopefully, the win over Nashville will provide a springboard into the weekend tilts against Florida.
-Line combinations can be fluid and Jon Cooper will switch up lines within a game if he feels it is warranted. But Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov remained together on the same line throughout the preseason. They looked good. Really good. And when Vladdy Namestnikov joined them for the final two preseason games, the line looked even better. Last Thursday against the Panthers, the Stamkos-Kucherov-Namestnikov unit was the best line on the ice and then on Saturday, the trio followed that up with another terrific performance against the Preds. While they didn't score a five-on-five goal, those three were on the ice for the three power play goals and the one sixth-attacker goal Lightning tallied in the two games. As well, Stamkos and Kucherov were on the ice for Kucherov's OT winner on Saturday.
Video: Game Recap| Postgame TBL 3, NSH 2
-Assistant Coach Todd Richards runs the power play and he did a wonderful job last year in overseeing what was the sixth-best power play in the league. For this season, after the departure of the traded Jonathan Drouin and the return of Stamkos from injury, Richards is restructuring the look of the power play. Prior to Thursday's game in Sunrise, Kucherov and Stamkos were put together on the same unit (with Namestnikov, Alex Killorn and Victor Hedman). In the final two preseason games, Killorn netted three power play goals. All three came from the slot, after he received a pass from either Stamkos or Kucherov and fired a quick shot at the net. Penalty kill units can't take away every option. So if opposing teams focus on taking away a potential shot from Stamkos and Kucherov, there may be opportunities for Killorn to do the kind of damage he inflicted in the preseason. If those units adjust to defend against a Killorn shot, then there could be openings for Stamkos or Kucherov.
Video: ANA@TBL: Killorn banks one in from circle for PPG
-Stamkos reported no physical ill effects after playing in four of the team's final five preseason games. Ryan Callahan, also returning from injury, looks to be ready as well. He was a beast on the penalty kill during the preseason, repeatedly breaking up plays, blocking shots and clearing pucks.
-Each summer when the schedule is released, I tend to look at the same things. The start. Back-to-backs. Challenging road trips. I've always felt the start is important because it's so difficult to make up ground in the second half of the season. The back-to-backs - especially the second game in the set - and tough road trips are obstacles to be navigated. If a team can get off to a good start and handle the rough patches of the schedule, it gives itself an excellent chance to make the playoffs. Interestingly, last year for the Lightning was an anomaly. Through their first 21 games, the Lightning were 13-7-1. The team had 16 back-to-backs and went 8-4-4 in the second game. There were two six-game trips and one five-gamer. Jon Cooper's objective is to come home with more points than games. While the Bolts didn't quite make it to Cooper's standard, they came close. In the two six-game trips, the Lightning finished with the same number of points as games. They amassed eight points in the five-game trip. But, as we all remember, the Lightning missed the playoffs.
As I detailed in my end-of-season column last spring, it was the middle part of the season that doomed the Lightning. It wasn't one particular road trip or one specific stretch (although they did lost four straight in early January). But they dropped enough games, including a number at home, that they left themselves virtually no margin for error in the final two months of the regular season. So in addition to the aforementioned categories, consistency of play throughout a full 82-game schedule is important too.
Still, last year's events didn't completely alter how I view a schedule. So what about this year? The Lightning have talked about the need to get off to a quick start. The opening month isn't especially heavy and the longest trip is only three games. But the Lightning will play the Penguins twice and have single games against Washington and Columbus. The Pens, Caps and Blue Jackets owned three of the top four point totals in the league last year. Plus, the Lightning have three games in the first month against the rival Panthers.
The Lightning have 13 sets of back-to-back games this year, as opposed to 16 last season. And the longest trip will be an eight-gamer, but it's sandwiched around the All-Star Game, so essentially, it's two four-game trips. Still, that portion of the schedule figures to be the Lightning's most rigorous. Beginning with a New Year's Eve game at Columbus, the Lightning will play 13 of 16 games on the road. On the other hand, the Lightning also have an eight-game homestand in March and, prior to the regular season finale in Carolina on April 7, get 12 of 16 games at Amalie Arena.
-Lightning fans are focused on the NHL club - rightfully so - but I recommend also keeping on eye on what's happening in Syracuse (if you aren't already doing so). We saw some impressive performances in the preseason from players starting the year in the AHL. Some, like Matthew Peca, Adam Erne and Cory Conacher spent time with the Lightning last year. Others, like Ben Thomas and Dominic Masin, have yet to play an NHL game, but contributed greatly to Syracuse's run to the Calder Cup Final last spring. Then there are a large number of young, exciting prospects just turning pro. Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph, Mitchell Stephens, Dennis Yan, Erik Cernak, Matt Spencer, Connor Ingram and Alexander Volkov, who stayed with the Lightning until the final few days of the preseason, are all with the Crunch this year. In addition to reading Crunch news on this website, you can follow the Crunch at www.syracusecrunch.com and on Twitter: @SyracuseCrunch.
As a reminder, I'll be resuming Extra Shift, a recap of how I saw each game from the booth, following Friday's opener between the Lightning and Panthers.