Koekkoek, a smooth-skating, offensively-skilled defenseman, made his league debut late last season after injuries to Jason Garrison and Andrej Sustr left the Lightning shorthanded on the blue line. Koekkoek played in three games during his first cup of coffee in the NHL, recording six shots and two penalty minutes.
But the 21 year old had never experienced the home atmosphere of a game at Amalie Arena.
Until Tuesday night.
Koekkoek, one of a handful of defensemen looking to earn a spot on the Lightning’s opening-day roster as a seventh defensemen with the top six all holdovers from last season, took his first walk out of the Bolts locker room, through the tunnel and onto home ice to a cheering home crowd.
Paired all night with Braydon Coburn, Koekkoek helped lead a defensive effort that held Nashville to 27 shots and shutout the Predators for 55-plus minutes in the preseason opener at Amalie Arena, the Bolts first game back on the ice since coming oh-so-close to hoisting the Stanley Cup in June.
“That CSI Miami intro song got me going, especially when I hear the scream,” Koekkoek said. “It was cool. For a preseason game, I thought the fans were awesome. Couldn’t ask for anything better.”
All three games Koekkoek played last season came on the road, as did every preseason game he was in the lineup for prior to Tuesday.
“I was really excited to play at home,” he said. “I got to watch a lot of playoff games here and the crowds are crazy. We love that.”
Tampa Bay took a 2-0 lead late into regulation, Erik Condra getting on the board in his first game as a Bolt with a second-period goal and Jonathan Drouin extending the lead on a breakaway score 1:01 into the third period.
Nashville rallied, however, scoring twice within 130 seconds over the final five minutes and producing the game-winner on a power play during fans’ first look at the NHL’s new 3-on-3 overtime format.
Nashville improved to 2-0-1 this preseason with the 3-2 extra-time win.
“Take away the last five minutes of the game, it wasn’t too bad,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “Three of the kids, it was their first-ever NHL game, so I was really happy with all those guys. I was happy with the effort. Both coaches will probably tell you it was pretty sloppy…It was your typical game one exhibition game.”
Condra’s goal came following a series of probing passes: Anthony DeAngelo on the right point to Mike Angelidis on the right post to Condra wide open on the back post. Condra merely had to tap the puck into the empty net to score the game’s first goal 2:58 into the second period.
“It’s good to get back on the ice,” Condra said. “It’s good to be hitting each other and playing full ice down and back. And it’s good to get a goal on the board.”
Alex Killorn sprung Drouin behind the Nashville defense with an accurate stretch pass that hit the second-year pro in stride. Drouin shuffled the puck from his forehand to backhand before slipping a shot five-hole under Preds goalie Carter Hutton (26 saves) to make it 2-0.
Drouin missed nearly all of training camp last year with an injury and was making his Lightning preseason debut.
“That was a great burst through the middle,” Cooper said of Drouin’s speed to get alone on goal. “Killer made an unreal pass to him, and he finished. Jo’s got that type of talent. You give him that space, he can take advantage of it.”
32-year-old NHL veteran Ray Emery started in net for Tampa Bay (0-0-1) and played half the game before giving way to rookie goalie Adam Wilcox. Emery stopped all 10 shots he faced.
“It’s amazing how rusty you get during the summer, but it’s amazing how quick it comes back,” Emery said. “I felt like I did OK.”
Wilcox kept Nashville off the board until 4:42 remained, an unfortunate bounce off his left shoulder sliding into the net off a shot from Cody Bass. Viktor Arvidsson tied the game 2-2 with 2:32 to go as he went undetected by the Lightning defense in the slot and buried his opportunity once he got the puck.
Steven Stamkos took a penalty during the 3-on-3 overtime, and Nashville capitalized on the resulting 4-on-3, Mattias Ekholm driving a shot past Wilcox to complete the comeback.
Wilcox finished with 14 saves on 17 shots.
“It obviously stinks that we lost,” he said. “It’s definitely a bitter taste. First game you’d like to get in there and get a win, especially going in with the lead.
Koekkoek, meanwhile, saw 18:17 time on ice in his home preseason debut and led the Lightning with five blocked shots. He also was Tampa Bay’s most-used penalty killer, getting 1:49 on the PK.
“I just wanted to keep things simple out there,” he said. “I talked to some of the coaches and that’s all they want from me. If I can just use my skating as a key tool for me, then I should be alright.”
Fellow defenseman Victor Hedman said Koekkoek debuted last season during a difficult time as the Lightning were coming down the stretch of a record-setting regular season and in the middle of a season-ending home stand.
“He played great and obviously showed to everyone that he can play on this level,” Hedman said. “He’s a year older, and he’s just going to get better. It’s a lot of fun to see. He had some trouble with injuries a couple years before, so for him to be healthy and ready to go, it’s obviously going to benefit him.”
Koekkoek won’t play Wednesday in the back end of a home-and-home with the Predators to open the preseason, Cooper saying the Bolts lineup in Nashville will be completely different.
But when he returns to the ice, look for Koekkoek to continue to gain comfort on the ice and continue to make his case to be included on the opening day roster when the Lightning host Philadelphia October 8 in the season opener.
And Koekkoek can make that pregame walk down the hallway and through the tunnel with the CSI Miami intro that gives him goosebumps blaring over the speakers again, but this time with something real on the line.