After four-and-a-half months to stew over their Game 7 loss to Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference Final, the Tampa Bay Lightning finally get back out on the ice in the pursuit of their first Stanley Cup since 2004.
The Lightning begin their quest for the Cup at AMALIE Arena tonight versus the Detroit Red Wings. The Bolts enter 2016-17 with lofty expectations as nearly the entire roster from a team that has advanced to the Eastern Conference Final (and won it in 2015) the last two seasons returns intact. Numerous hockey pundits and scribes have circled the Lightning as their pick to win it all this season.
"You can't get caught up in predictions and that sort of thing," Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. "We know what we have in this room. We've seen it the last two years. We have the same group. We've gotten more mature together as a team. We've gotten older. We have that experience now. That was a big question a couple years ago when we were in the Final. We've been to the Final. We've been back to the Conference Final. We came a game away from the Cup Final again. We have that experience. It's about doing what it takes to get there…But the excitement is here. The guys know the potential of this group, and we're excited about that."
Part of the heightened expectations for the coming season revolves around the plethora of talented, skilled forwards that can put the puck in the back of the net for the Lightning. And that was before 20-year-old rookie Brayden Point squeezed his way into a crowded forward group and onto the roster for Opening Night. Point will make his NHL debut tonight.
Video: Cooper on 2016-17 season expectations
"The one thing I told him, don't ever lose your competitive edge because that's one of the things that, for an undersized guy right now, it's pushing you over the top," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said about his advice to Point prior to tonight's opener. "That's an asset you can use to your advantage so don't ever lose that. You make a mistake, you make a mistake. It's going to happen, but don't lose that competitive edge and that was it. He was pretty fired up. He probably glossed right over everything because he's so excited to play, but that's what I told him."
Lightning center Tyler Johnson, fully healthy once again after playing all of last season with an injured wrist, said it's not just the forward group that has everyone inside the locker room and outside excited about the coming season.
"Just our entire team in general, we have a really strong team with what everyone can contribute and bring to the table," Johnson said. "It's exciting, exciting to be a part of. It's fun. It's a great group of guys as well on and off the ice, which makes it even better. Being a forward, being a guy that likes to score and get points, it's fun playing with a lot of skilled guys like we have."
BITTER RIVALS: Detroit begins the 2016-17 season against the team that ended its 2015-16 season.
The Lightning host a familiar foe in the Red Wings, who the Bolts have knocked out of the First Round of the playoffs each of the last two seasons. In 2016, Tampa Bay eliminated Detroit in five games.
"I think they're going to have a little more extra motivation, probably a big chip on their shoulder after what happened last year," said Bolts goaltender Ben Bishop, who will make his third-straight and third-ever Opening Night start tonight. "They're a good opponent. They always seem to play us pretty well, and we've got to be ready tonight. They're going to come in here all business."
The Lightning and the Red Wings have played each other 21 times over the last two seasons, playoffs included.
Video: Johnson on the start of the 2016-17 season
"We have some good history against them the last couple years, some good battles, some good rivalry games," Johnson said. "I was excited to see that's who we were opening against as well. Really looking forward to tonight, and hopefully we can get it going the right way."
The Red Wings lost veteran forward Pavel Datsyuk when he left Detroit to return to his native Russia in the offseason but have brought in plenty of help to offset his loss.
"I think you can't replace a guy like Datsyuk, but if you're going to try, they did a heck of a job in doing it with (Frans) Nielsen," Cooper said. "I think he's one of the most underrated players in this league. If anybody watched the World Cup he was outstanding. They've got some veterans back. (Drew) Miller's back, and he missed the whole year. They've got a little bit of spark in there with (Steve) Ott in the lineup. Missing (Niklas) Kronwall, which I'm sure they'd rather have him in the lineup, but they've got some new guys there so they've changed a little bit of their flow. They've thrown a sniper in there in (Thomas) Vanek. They've changed their team a little bit, so it's going to be definitely a different look. But you've got (Dylan) Larkin now a year older, a year wiser."
STARTING STRONG: The Lightning were slow out of the gate last season, going just 5-5-2 in October and struggling to maintain pace with the rest of the Atlantic Division early. The Bolts, in fact, were in seventh place in the Atlantic and out of a playoff spot until mid-December.
They don't want to get off to a similar slow start this season.
"We know it's going to be a long season," Stamkos said. "We've got to get off on the right foot. Hopefully that starts tonight."
A win tonight over an always-tough Detroit team would be a good tone-setter to the rest of the season for the Bolts.
"Everybody waits a long time, the fans and the players, to kind of get (the season) under way," Bishop said. "It's an exciting night. At the same time, you've got to just focus like it's any other game and go out there and take care of business. You want to feed off of the emotions but not get too high."