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Notebook: Nikita Kucherov, Vladislav Namestnikov eager for Opening Night

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

Nikita Kucherov made his NHL debut last season for the Tampa Bay Lightning and skated in 52 games.

The Russian forward appeared in both Lightning playoff games at the Tampa Bay Times Forum (now Amalie Arena) against the Montreal Canadiens.

But, even with that year of experience combined with the pressure of playing postseason hockey under his belt, Kucherov admits tonight will be extra special for him as the Lightning open the 2014-15 regular season against the Florida Panthers at Amalie Arena.

For the first time in his career, Kucherov will be on a NHL roster for Opening Night.

“I think I’m going to be nervous a little bit because first game and all,” Kucherov said. “I want to play well in front of all the fans.”

Kucherov played in all six exhibition games for the Lightning and scored six goals to lead the NHL. Through his preseason success as well as his performance during training camp, Kucherov was one of a handful of players on the bubble to make the squad.

“Before preseason, I wasn’t thinking about scoring goals. I was just trying to do my best,” he said. “I think everybody wants to score a goal every game. For me especially, I needed it more than everybody else here because I needed to make the team. I was excited about (the preseason).”

F J.T. Brown and C Vladislav Namestnikov will also be making their first appearance on an opening night roster. Brown has considerably more experience, playing in 63 games last season and five in his rookie season (2011-12).

“Obviously, you’ve got to have energy right off the start,” Brown said. “We’re playing a good team. We’ve played them a few times, so we’ve got to kind of change a few things and make sure we’re playing structurally sound.”

Namestnikov parlayed a strong preseason in which he tied for the league lead with seven assists into a spot on the Opening Night roster. The 21-year-old fourth line center made his NHL debut last season for the Lightning, skating in four regular season games.

“I think I know what the league is about now,” Namestnikov said. “I know what I have to do to play here. I think I had a good summer.”

Bolts captain Steven Stamkos can still recall his first Opening Night during his rookie season in 2008-09. The Lightning played the New York Rangers in Prague, falling 2-1.

Stamkos’ advice to the newcomers is to not be scared.

“These guys have the skill,” Stamkos said. “They have the passion to learn. They’re great kids. If anything, it’s enjoy the moment and play  the way that got you here…That was the thing that’s a lot easier said than done is not being afraid to make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. That’s how you grow and get better.”

Big Ben Starts

Lightning goaltender Big Ben will get his first Opening Night start between the pipes against the Florida Panthers, but for the six-year NHL veteran, tonight is no different from any other.

“I played the home opener last year, so I kind of have that experience under my belt,” Bishop said. “But, no, it’s just another game.”

Bishop hasn’t started a NHL game since April 8, 2014, when he left the ice almost six minutes into the contest after dislocating his elbow.

“I think if you’re getting the first start, you’ve earned the first start,” head coach Jon Cooper said. “I’m sure every goaltender wants to be in that position.”

Lightning Lines

The forward lines for the Tampa Bay Lightning during pre-game skate were: Stamkos-Palat-Johnson; Filppula-Killorn-Callahan; Boyle-Brown-Morrow; Namestnikov-Connolly-Kucherov.

Defensive pairings were: Hedman-Stralman; Gudas-Garrison; Sustr-Carle.

Eric Brewer and Mark Barberio were also paired together Thursday morning, but Cooper said he would go with 12 forwards and six defensemen against Florida. Brewer and Barberio are the odd defenders out.

“It’s not fun to tell anybody that,” Cooper said.

Also, Jonathan Drouin, still recovering from a slight fracture of his right thumb, is scratched for tonight.

Brenden Morrow has recovered enough from the back spasms that kept him out of parts of training camp and the preseason to be included in tonight’s lineup.

“I’m excited to have him back,” Cooper said. “I think he’s a presence in our locker room. He’s a presence on the ice. It’s good to have him back.”

Just Another Game

Cooper referenced last night’s San Jose-Los Angeles Kings matchup when asked about the importance of winning on Opening Night.

“The No. 1 Stanley Cup contender for me is the LA Kings, and they got shut out last night at home 4-0 to a rival,” he said.

“So, does that make the LA Kings not a contender anymore? Not at all. There’s 82 games in a year. I don’t think you can sit here and base expectations on how one game goes.”

Opening Night Notes

- The Lightning are 12-7-0 with two ties all-time on Opening Night

- In seasons the Lightning have made the postseason, the Bolts are 5-1-1 on Opening Night

- The Lightning had a three-game winning streak on Opening Night snapped last season in a 3-1 loss at Boston

- The Lightning have faced the Florida Panthers two times in club history on Opening Night and have one win and one loss. Both games were on the road. 

Nobody Panic

Richard Panik was placed on waivers Wednesday by the Tampa Bay Lightning in order to trim the roster to 23 players after Morrow was taken off injured reserve. Thursday, the Toronto Maple Leafs claimed Panik before the noon deadline.

Panik, speaking to Tampa Bay media about the move, said he’s glad the process is behind him and is excited for a change of scenery in Toronto.

“It’s going to be a new start for me,” Panik said. “I’m going to do my best to make this lineup in Toronto.”

Panik skated in 50 games last season for the Lightning, scoring three goals and adding ten assists. He made his NHL debut for Tampa Bay during the 2012-13 season.

“Tampa Bay Lightning is a great organization,” Panik said. “I really had fun playing there. It didn’t work out. I tried my best…I’m a little bit disappointed, but now, like I said, it’s a fresh start for me and we’ll go from there.”

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