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Opening Night still special for Lightning veterans

Road-heavy start to the regular season adds emphasis to tomorrow's home opener

by Bryan Burns /

Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos has been in the National Hockey League long enough that tomorrow's Opening Night at AMALIE Arena (7 p.m. puck drop vs. Florida) will be the 12th of this career.

The occasion still hasn't lost its luster for the 29 year old.

"It's crazy how fast it goes," Stamkos remarked. "You just learn to appreciate your time in this league. It's the best league in the world, and it's the hardest league in the world to play. We're fortunate to have the same core of guys that we've had for a while. We know what the expectation is in this room. Now, it's enough of the talk, let's go out and do it. Guys are excited to start the season."

Video: Stamkos on end of preseason

The Lightning are excited to start the season and anxious to finally close the book on the disappointment from a first-round exit in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs after a historic 62-win regular season.

"It's amazing that all this time's passed, what was it five-and-a-half months that have passed? It seems like it was just yesterday," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "It's real exciting that we start (Thursday)…The games are being played for real. It's just a fun time of year. Everybody starts 0-0 and there's so much that goes into the next six months but it's a fun ride."

For the Lightning to get back to the postseason and atone for last year's misstep, Thursday's season opener takes on added significance, at least as much as the first game in an 82-game schedule can take. The Lightning play just four times at AMALIE Arena in October. They'll hit the road for eight games during the month. In November, the Bolts will take a week-and-a-half out of the season to travel to Sweden for a pair of games against the Buffalo Sabres. They won't see extended action at AMALIE Arena until the final week of November.

All of which means, if the Lightning get off to a slow start this season, the losses might start to snowball since the team won't have their home crowd behind them much at all until after Thanksgiving.

"The schedule sucks for us to start the year, there's no question about that," Stamkos said. "We're on the road a lot for the first two months really. Got to get off to a good start. Sometimes it's kind of nice to get on the road, get the guys out together, gain that camaraderie and sometimes you play a simpler game on the road to start the year. We're hoping to get the first one out of the way tomorrow night and we'll go from there."

After kicking the 2019-20 campaign off at home against the Panthers, the Lightning immediately go on the road for a six-game road trip and don't return to AMALIE Arena for another 16 days.

"I think everyone's super excited that the games really start to count now," said Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, who said he is fine to play in the season opener after he was dinged up for the final preseason game. "We've got to be ready from the start. It's a tough schedule the first couple of months. A lot of road games, and we've got to be sharp right away. We can't have a slow start or it's going to come back to haunt us later in the year."

Video: Cooper on turning the page

With the long grind of the regular season ahead, not to mention what the Bolts hope is an extended postseason run to follow, the first game might seem anticlimactic to veteran players. Sure, the moment will be special for Carter Verhaeghe, who will make his NHL debut on Thursday. Erik Cernak and Luke Witkowski haven't skated in an opening night game either.

The vets, however, get just as excited at the prospect of the season starting. The long summer offseason workouts are over. Training camp has concluded. Preseason is finished.

Now the games count for real. This is what all that hard work in the offseason has been pointing toward.

"At this point, for me especially, it's like, 'Let's just get through September and get to October already,'" Stamkos said. "Guys are excited. It's always great to start at home in front of the fans. I'm sure they're excited as well. No matter how many times you've done opening night, some guys it's going to be their first tomorrow, some guys their 10th, 11th, 12th, it's always exciting. I'm looking forward to it."

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