The travel has been grueling, so much so that Barry Melrose said he felt like he was coming home when the Tampa Bay Lightning landed in Prague early Wednesday morning.
Even so, the Lightning wouldn't trade their European experience for anything right now. Not only did they win a pair of games in Germany and Slovakia, but they've bonded through this unique NHL excursion.
"It was tough getting off the plane and playing a game in Berlin, but you know what? It was worth it just for the experience of playing over there," Lightning forward Jason Ward said. "The fans were great. It's one of those experiences that I'll always have no matter where I am."
The Lightning started their journey in Tampa on Sept. 24, when they flew to New York for a game against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden the next night. From New York, the Lightning flew to Prague, flying through the night into Sept. 26.
After spending two full days in Prague, the Bolts' journey got really interesting.
In a 10-hour span this past Sunday, the Lightning flew from Prague to Berlin, played a game against Eisbaren Berlin -- they won, 4-1 -- and then hopped on the plane again to fly to Bratislava, Slovakia. They took off from Prague at around 2:30 in the afternoon and landed in Bratislava at just past midnight Monday.
The Lightning beat Eisbaren despite touching down in Berlin just 90 minutes before the scheduled puck drop. The game was pushed back 30 minutes to accommodate them, but the Lightning did not have a morning skate, either.
"It's unbelievable when you think about it that way," Ward said. "It is truly an experience. Obviously the NHL and the NHLPA will make adjustments throughout the years. It's a process and this is a stepping stone. Hopefully we build a big ladder that continues to grow international hockey."
While the journey has been taxing on Melrose and his players -- not to mention the two writers traveling with the Bolts to chronicle every moment -- everyone around the team feels particularly sorry for the trainers and equipment staff.
They're the ones loading and unloading trucks, bags and boxes. They're the ones working the hardest to make sure the players have whatever they need whenever they need it.
"It's been a nice trip for the players, but it is hell for the trainers and they've just been fantastic," Melrose said. "They never complained once and they worked their butts off. Everything was ready for the guys when they came in here (the O2 Arena in Prague). They've done a fantastic job and I know the players have taken care of them in some ways and certainly they respect what they have done."
Added forward Vaclav Prospal: "It's great for us to have all the work that is behind the scenes. We try to take care of them and let them know we appreciate whatever they do for us."
As for on the ice, the Bolts are content, nothing more.
They won both games, but needed a shootout to beat HC Slovan in Bratislava.
"It's been a nice trip for the players, but it is hell for the trainers and they've just been fantastic. They never complained once and they worked their butts off." - Lightning coach Barry Melrose
However, as Melrose noted, "No one has gotten hurt. We got guys back. Travel has been tough. It really has, but there are great people in Europe. The fans in every building we've been to have been fantastic.
"We're not playing as well as we want to right now and that's something we've got to improve on, but we've lost one game this year out of all that we have played. Winning is special. It takes a special team to win when they're not playing great, and that's what we have been able to do so far. That's always the most important thing."
The other bit of fantastic news around the Bolts is captain Vincent Lecavalier
is back after missing all four preseason games in North America while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.
Lecavalier scored the game-tying goal late in the third period against HC Slovan and later potted the shootout winner.
With Lecavalier in the lineup, Tampa Bay appears to have its top five forwards set with the Lecavalier-Martin St. Louis-Prospal trio reunited and Steve Stamkos and Ryan Malone
playing together on the second line.
The Lightning still are undecided about who will be the right wing on the second line. So far, it has been Radim Vrbata.
"We were a little sloppy in the second period (against Slovan), but we were working on our systems," Lecavalier said. "Like Barry said, we haven't been as good as we wanted to be, but we're winning games. These next few days will be important for starting our season."Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com.
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Staff Writer