Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois was having a phone conversation with Lightning head coach Jon Cooper Friday evening when he saw a tweet that Bolts nation had been waiting on for exactly 142 days: actual, real Lightning games on a schedule, with dates and opponents and everything.
Okay, so maybe no times or broadcast information yet but, hey, at this point we'll take what we can get.
After four months of uncertainty, four months after the National Hockey League season paused indefinitely with no indication when it would continue, the League and the Players' Association ratified a Return to Play Plan along with a four-year extension of the Collective Bargaining Agreement Friday, ensuring a conclusion to the 2019-20 season and a Stanley Cup champion for 2020 along with labor peace through 2025-26.
And with the announcement of the round robin matchups for the four top seeds in each conference along with the schedule for the best-of-five qualifiers between seeds five through 12, the Lightning finally had an opponent to prepare for.
Tampa Bay begins the three-game round robin August 3 against the Washington Capitals. The Lightning will face the Boston Bruins, which finished the 2019-20 regular season as the NHL's top team, August 5 and wrap up the round robin August 9 versus the Philadelphia Flyers. All round robin games and qualifying round matchups as well as the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the Eastern Conference will be played in the hub city of Toronto. Western Conference games will be contested in Edmonton.
The Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Finals will also be in Edmonton.
Video: Julien BriseBois on returning to play
"We kind of got (the schedule) at the same time and we started looking at the calendar. 'What does this mean for us? How do we go about getting ready? Does that change anything we have planned for training camp?' The reality is I don't have answers on the specifics," BriseBois said on a media conference call Saturday morning. "What I do know is I'm really grateful that we're going to get a chance to finish writing our own story here. It would have been a shame for our team, for the story of our team during the 2019-2020 season to not get a chance to write our own ending and have that opportunity being taken away from us. And that was certainly a possibility considering what's going on in the world right now.
"So, to know that the CBA's are ratified and we're going to have labor peace for the next six years and we're going to get a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup this summer in a format that I think is going to be wildly entertaining - the NHL playoffs as a rule are probably as entertaining a sporting event as there is and now we're adding a little bit of a March Madness flavor to it - I think it's going to make for an incredible, incredible television viewing."
In order to reach their goal of winning a Stanley Cup, the Lightning will have to navigate one of the most difficult, if unknown, postseasons in League history. The three round robin games will determine seeding for the quarterfinal round. And while those games will carry weight, they no doubt won't be as hotly contested as the best-of-five qualifiers. When the Lightning finally get to the quarterfinals, they'll be facing a team that's already been through a do-or-die scenario, giving their opponent an advantage as far as battle readiness.
The Lightning won't have their fans in the arena supporting them. None of the teams will as all playoff games will be staged at hub city arenas in front of empty stands. The raucous atmosphere that traditionally defines the NHL postseason will be absent.
The players will be sequestered inside a bubble in their hub city, only allowed to leave to go to the arena to play games (there are hefty fines and potential consequences against the organization if a player is caught outside the bubble). They'll be away from their families for a prolonged period, at least, potentially, until the conference final round.
And they'll have gone nearly five months without playing a competitive game when they finally do take the ice. How the team has remained engaged in the process throughout the pause will be probably be the single biggest determining factor for success in the postseason.
"This is going to be the hardest Stanley Cup ever to win," BriseBois said when asked if the announced playoff format maintains the integrity of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. "It's going to be a memorable Stanley Cup Playoffs for a number of reasons. I don't think that in any way the integrity of the competition has been compromised."
Tampa Bay will have 33 players in camp when it opens Monday. In addition to the 25 players on the roster when the season paused March 12, the Lightning called up five forwards, a defenseman and two goaltenders from Syracuse.
Mathieu Joseph and Alex Volkov were the two forwards most likely to be recalled when the season paused, so they were easy additions to the training camp roster. The Lightning coaching staff wanted to bring up a center who could help prepare the team for the postseason, so Gemel Smith was added.
"Gemel Smith is really good at getting the puck deep, puck protection, extending shifts in the offensive zone, the type of hockey that we need to get ready for, that we need to be able to play and that we need to be able to defend against come playoff time," BriseBois said.
Luke Witkowski provides toughness and versatility. He started the season in Tampa Bay as a forward, went back to his usual defenseman role while with Syracuse but enters camp again at forward. He can fill in on the blue line, however, if injuries dictate.
And a lower-body injury to Lightning captain Steven Stamkos during Phase 2, a new injury unrelated to his surgery March 2 to repair a core muscle injury, necessitated another forward call-up, which went to Alex Barre-Boulet, who was named to the AHL All-Rookie Team in 2019 and was a second-team AHL end-of-year All-Star in 2020.
BriseBois said Stamkos won't be a full participant when camp opens Monday but expects him to be ready in time for games.
Cal Foote was the lone defenseman brought up from Syracuse "because of how he played especially down the stretch in Syracuse, but also because of his size," BriseBois said. "He's 6-foot-5, 220 (pounds). He's a good defender. You have to fight through his size and through his reach to generate offense, and that's what our players are going to have to fight through come playoff time."
Crunch goalies Scott Wedgewood and Spencer Martin will also be in camp, which opens Monday at AMALIE Arena and runs through Sunday, July 26, to alleviate some of the burden on Lightning netminders Andrei Vasilevskiy and Curtis McElhinney.
BriseBois said the additions to the roster as well as all of the decisions he and his staff have made during the pause and in the days leading up to the opening of camp have revolved around one singular focus: getting ready for the first game of the actual playoffs.
"Ultimately, our success come playoff time, as it is always, it comes down to resiliency, and this year probably more than ever we can't be focusing on the things that are not normal, that are not comfortable, that are a little annoying, that aren't exactly the way we want," BriseBois said. "Our mindset has to be we're going to embrace the suck and we're going to dance in the rain. That's the mindset. That's the attitude we have to bring to this whole thing, and that's been our message to our players. We can't focus on the negatives. We have to turn them into positives, and we have to just enjoy it and be grateful we're getting an opportunity to compete for the Cup and we get to write our own ending to our story."