Just one day remains before the start of the 2015-16 season for the Tampa Bay Lightning, who hope to defend their Eastern Conference championship, return to the Stanley Cup Final and win it all this season. The Lightning had one final practice session on Wednesday before the opener and were joined on the ice by a couple of familiar faces to Tampa Bay sports fan. Let’s recap all the action in today’s Lightning sights and sounds.
* A number of prognosticators and experts have picked the Tampa Bay to win the Stanley Cup this season, especially with the Lightning returning nearly their entire team with a few additions.
The Bolts, though, understand just how hard it is to even make the playoffs, particularly with so much parity in the NHL currently. Last season, the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings and President’s Trophy holder Boston Bruins failed to even qualify for the postseason.
“All that Finals talk and getting back there and preseason rankings and expectations, that’s all thrown out the window starting today,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “We’re looking to obviously learn from the experiences we went through last year and help us with the journey that’s going to start tomorrow night. All that stuff ends. This is a fresh start, and the team has to have that same hunger that we came in last year with.”
Last season, the Lightning got off to a fast start, winning 11 of their first 15 games to jump to the head of the Atlantic Division, where they remained for much of the season before eventually finishing two points behind Montreal in second place.
In 2015-16, Tampa Bay will play 11 of its first 16 games on the road.
“Every year, it’s different,” Lightning center Brian Boyle said. “The league’s different. Your expectations need to be on the task at hand. You can’t look at June right now. You can’t look at April. You can’t look past October. We’re on the road a lot. We’ve got a tough start to the schedule. We need to make sure that we are firing on all cylinders and very, very sharp in all areas of the game.”
* Second-year defenseman Nikita Nesterov started last season with AHL Syracuse before joining the Lightning for his first NHL game on December 31, 2014, at Buffalo and staying with the Bolts for the remainder of the regular season and all of the postseason.
Nesterov made the Lightning lineup out of training camp this season, and, on Thursday, will be on the Opening Night roster for the first time in his professional career.
Asked if he was excited about being with the Lightning from the start this season, Nesterov replied, a big grin on his face: “Yeah, I’m ready.”
* Tampa Bay Rays pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Matt Moore joined the Lightning for the final few minutes of practice and got some pointers from Alex Killorn and Boyle before taking turns firing slap shots at the goal.
Both players struggled to remain balanced on their skates while shooting.
“I haven’t figured out how you get it in the air and how you don’t fall after you shoot it,” Odorizzi said.
Even with the difficulty, Odorizzi said he managed to sneak a shot past Lightning goalie Ben Bishop.
Moore, meanwhile, said he’d only skated “twice” before and was impressed how easy the Lightning players make it look.
“I fell down a couple times,” Moore said. “But I wasn’t afraid to fall after that because we have a lot of pads on us.”
* Tyler Johnson, after watching Odorizzi and Moore skate, with some good-natured ribbing: “I think they should probably stick to baseball.”
* Odorizzi, when asked how difficult it is to skate for a prolonged period: “I don’t sweat this much during a (baseball) game.”
* Due to the extended postseason run, the Lightning had a shortened, two-month offseason.
So, how do the Bolts prepare themselves mentally for what will hopefully be another long grind?
“We put in the work in the offseason,” Boyle said. “We know how the season goes with travel. It’s something that we’re conditioned to do at this point, but we can’t look at tomorrow night like we’re going out trying to win 82 games. Tomorrow night we need to make sure we take care of business.”
Boyle reiterated the Lightning shouldn’t get too high or low based on the result from Opening Night.
“If we don’t win, we can’t look at it like, ‘Oh, we’ve got 81 more,’” he said. “We got to make sure we fix whatever the problem is. If we do win, we need to understand that it’s one game. We’ve got a long way to go. Our focus needs to remain on the opponent we’re playing each night.”
* Some parting words from Moore on the difficulty of playing hockey: “It’s probably a lot like golf. If you don’t play hockey by age 25, don’t start.”