The Tampa Bay Lightning's preseason opener tonight against the Nashville Predators at Amalie Arena (7:30 p.m. start) will allow Bolts fans to get their first look at a team many experts are predicting to challenge for the Atlantic Division title.
The game also marks the debut of highly-touted goalkeeping prospect Andrei Vasilevskiy, who will be making his first NHL preseason or regular season appearance.
According to associate head coach Rick Bowness, the 20-year-old Vasilevskiy will play the entire game.
"We're very excited to see this kid," Bowness said.
Vasilevskiy was the 19th overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. Last season he skated for Salavat Yulayev Ufa of the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia, compiling a 14-8 record and three shutouts in 28 games.
In 18 playoff games, Vasilevskiy was 9-9 with one shutout, and his goals-against average improved from 2.21 to 1.99 during the postseason. Vasilevskiy led his team to the conference final and earned the Alexei Cherepanov Award as the league's top rookie.
"He comes with a lot of hype and well deserved," Bowness said.
Vasilevskiy's biggest adjustment will come from how he handles the rink size dimensions in the NHL, which are smaller than in Russia. With his skill set, however, the transition should be a minor one.
"Nobody knows how big he is and how much of the net he covers and how quick he is and how hard he works," Bowness said. "Even some of our veteran players have said 'Wow, this kid works hard.'
Some goalies get tired and go 'OK, it's another shot.' This kid, he's battling and fighting every shot regardless if it's a shooting drill or whatever."
Vasilevskiy will be looking to improve on his performance from a week ago at the NHL rookie showcase in Nashville when he allowed five goals playing the entire game against rookies from the Florida Panthers. Vasilevskiy gave up six goals total in a game-and-a-half of play in Nashville.
Bowness said there are three phases to training camp. The Lightning have completed phase one, the early practices and video sessions going over on-ice systems.
Tonight, the Lightning enter phase two, the early preseason games, when coaches evaluate players, mainly the youngsters.
"The early games are judging players who are only going to get one or two games," Bowness said. "You've got to make a determination on where they're going to fit."
The first couple of preseason games also offer the coaches a chance to see if the lessons being taught early in camp are sinking in.
"In terms of team play, system play, the things we've gone over for four days," Bowness said.
For veteran NHL defenseman Jason Garrison, entering his seventh season in the league, early preseason games are a chance to knock off the rust and eliminate bad habits.
"You can practice all summer but it's just not the same until you get in a game," he said. "Even though these aren't regular season games, they're definitely still high tempo. You're learning your systems. You're trying to be productive and keep possession and just kind of start from there and work your way up."
The Lightning are 70-47-23 all-time in the preseason, including a 5-2-0 record last season. The Bolts defeated Nashville 5-1 in their 2013-14 preseason home opener…Four players – Cristiano DiGiacinto, Dominik Masin, Brayden Point and Ben Thomas – were reassigned to their junior teams the Lightning announced Tuesday. Michael Aviani and Kodie Curran were released from their rookie camp tryouts.