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At the Rink: Panthers at Lightning

by Corey Long / NHL.com

TAMPA, Fla. – With several experts picking the Tampa Bay Lightning as a Stanley Cup contender this season, coach Jon Cooper reminded members of the media that the Lightning were picked to be at the bottom of the standings last season.

"I'm hoping they aren't wrong this year," Cooper said. "And that is what makes this fun, but we can't listen to the hype."

Cooper said it's important not to make one game out to be more important than it is, even the season opener.

"Right now for me the No. 1 Stanley Cup contender is the L.A. Kings and they got shut out at home [Wednesday] night," Cooper said. "Did losing that one game make them any less of a contender? Of course not. It will be easier to determine who the contenders are when we get 25 games into the season."

The Lightning made several transactions in the offseason and will have several new faces in the lineup including defenseman Anton Stralman and forwards Brian Boyle and Vladisalv Namestnikov. Cooper believes that even though this group might lack the experience of last season's team, the overall group is better.

"This year's team is so much younger, we're faster though but less experienced," Cooper said. "However, in saying that we have a lot more youthful exuberance than in the past and overall I think we have the chance to be better."

The major difference might be the health of center Steven Stamkos and goalie Ben Bishop. Stamkos missed nearly four months with a fractured right tibia and Bishop, a Vezina Trophy finalist, missed the final weeks of the season and the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a wrist injury.

Stamkos says he needed the offseason to fully recover from his injury.

"It took a lot of time to really heal and strengthen my leg," Stamkos said. "But now I feel as good as I've felt in a long time."

When it comes to being a contender, Stamkos believes the Lightning have everything necessary to compete for a Stanley Cup.

"I would say we are much more polished than last season," Stamkos said. "We made the playoffs and had a chance to experience that so now we know what it takes to compete at that level."

Florida Panthers defenseman and new captain Willie Mitchell was celebrating a championship at the end of last season with the Kings. Now he goes from one of the League's top teams to one that has struggled recently.

However, Mitchell said he hopes the young Panthers can surprise those who have picked them to be near the bottom of the League again this year.

"Everyone's on a clean slate, heck we're ahead of the L.A. Kings right now," Mitchell said. "No one owns the Stanley Cup and the first step to that is getting to the postseason, and that's the goal of this club."

Mitchell said he'd rather the Kings send him his ring in the mail and not plan anything special for him when the Panthers travel there in November.

Here are the projected lineups:

LIGHTNING

Ondrej Palat - Steven Stamkos - Tyler Johnson

Alex KillornValtteri Filppula- Ryan Callahan

Brenden Morrow - Brian Boyle - J.T. Brown

Nikita Kucherov- Vladislav Namestnikov - Brett Connolly

Victor Hedman - Anton Stralman

Matthew Carle - Andrej Sustr

Jason Garrison - Radko Gudas

Ben Bishop

Evgeni Nabokov

Scratches: Eric Brewer, Mark Barberio

Injured: Jonathan Drouin (hand) Mattias Ohlund (knee)

PANTHERS

Jonathan Huberdeau - Aleksander BarkovJussi Jokinen

Scottie UpshallNick BjugstadBrad Boyes

Sean BergenheimDave BollandTomas Fleischmann

Tomas KopeckyDerek MacKenzieShawn Thornton

Willie MitchellDmitry Kulikov

Aaron EkbladBrian Campbell

Dylan OlsenErik Gudbranson

Roberto Luongo

Al Montoya

Scratches: Brandon Pirri, Colby Robak, Jimmy Hayes

Injuries: None

Status report: One of the surprising scratches was the Lightning's decision to sit Brewer. "I know he's not happy about it and I'm not happy to do it," Cooper said, "but we're going to need him this season and when we do someone else is going to be in his position."… Cooper credits Namestnikov's ascension to the main roster with the experience he gained with Syracuse in the American Hockey League the past two years. …Richard Panik was claimed off waivers by the Toronto Maple Leafs. A second-round selection (No. 52) of the Lightning in the 2009 NHL Draft, Panik said he felt like something could be happening when he didn't play in the final preseason game. "The Tampa Bay Lightning is a great organization and I will miss being part of that," Panik said. "But I am looking at this as a new start and I'm going to do everything I can to break into the lineup with Toronto." … Florida coach Gerard Gallant said that Mitchell and Kulikov should complement each other on the blue line with their contrasting styles. … Ekblad, the top pick in the 2014 draft, will continue to be paired with Brian Campbell after playing together in a preseason game against the Lightning last Saturday.

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