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Stamkos set to debut in front of home crowd

by Brian Hunter

A few thoughts while we prepare for a full slate of preseason action:

Stamkos skates at home – What can No. 1 draft pick Steven Stamkos do as a follow-up to his performance in the Tampa Bay Lightning’s exhibition opener Saturday? The 18-year-old center scored in the shootout to key a 5-4 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending Eastern Conference champions, at Mellon Arena.

Whatever the answer, it will happen Monday night in front of what figures to be an adoring and excited crowd at the St. Pete Times Forum, as Stamkos and the revamped Lightning skate at home for the first time since the end of a disappointing 2007-08 season.

Tampa Bay finished last in the NHL with 71 points, but immediately set about turning things around by selecting the Sarnia Sting prodigy with the first pick in June’s Entry Draft. The Lightning brought Barry Melrose aboard as coach, replacing John Tortorella, and added a cast of new players that includes Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts, Mark Recchi, Brandon Bochenski, Matt Carle, Andrej Meszaros and Olaf Kolzig.

But to a fan base desperately seeking a fresh start, no one is more appealing than Stamkos, who gets a chance to build off a positive debut when the Lightning and Penguins meet again Monday. On the opening faceoff of Saturday’s contest, Stamkos got the better of another top draft pick you might have heard of, Sidney Crosby, and took it from there.

“I was obviously a little nervous facing off against Sidney Crosby, but I won the draw so I was pretty happy about that,” Stamkos said. “When that puck drops, you forget about all the jitters and just go out there and play.”

That’s all Melrose and the Tampa Bay coaching staff is looking for as Stamkos gets acclimated to the NHL game. The rookie recognized that areas of his game will need to get better, but he came out of it with the confidence he can compete in the League at a high level.

“It’s just the little things, but I was skating well and the physicality was not an issue,” Stamkos said. “So I will just keep working on those little things and they should keep getting better and better each time I step on the ice.”

Sprint Center showcase – It won’t be your average preseason opener when the St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings take the ice Monday night. The teams will be facing off at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, an arena built with the hopes of eventually attracting an NHL franchise.

“There is no doubt Kansas City has tremendous hockey fans,” Al MacInnis, the Blues’ vice president of hockey operations, told the Kansas City Star. “We have a number of Blues fans there, and I was told by our sales department that we have a few season-ticket holders (in Kansas City), which goes to show what type of hockey fans there are (there).”

St. Louis has played a pair of exhibition games in Kansas City in the past at Kemper Arena, which once was home to the Scouts – an NHL expansion franchise that moved to Colorado and later became the New Jersey Devils. Blues right wing Lee Stempniak recorded his first preseason point in a game there three years ago, against the Nashville Predators.

"You don’t get NHL hockey in Kansas City very often. But it was a lot of fun. There were a ton of fans there. It was one of my first preseason games and I really learned a lot." -- Lee Stempniak

“You don’t get NHL hockey in Kansas City very often,” Stempniak said. “But it was a lot of fun. There were a ton of fans there. It was one of my first preseason games and I really learned a lot.”

Chris Mason was in goal for Nashville that day and is expected to make his St. Louis debut on Monday. T.J. Oshie, the Blues’ top pick in the 2005 Entry Draft, figures to be in the lineup and looking to work his way toward a spot on the opening-night roster. Just because it’s not a regular-season game, though, doesn’t mean the participants aren’t taking it seriously.

“These are exhibition games, but it’s the St. Louis Blues playing against the Los Angeles Kings,” Blues coach Andy Murray said. “We don’t want the Kings to beat us. This is a process of evaluation and I always think you can evaluate people better in a winning environment than you can in a losing (one).”

"Doughty stood out. He did a lot of positive things with the puck during the rookie scrimmages. He has a great head on his shoulders, he played the physical side of the game, he didn’t hesitate in his 1-on-1 confrontations, and he tried to show some authority with the puck."
-- Terry Murray

Let’s play two – Major League Baseball teams often split their squads during spring training in order to play multiple games on the same day. It’s not a common practice in the NHL, but the Kings will be doing it Monday.

In addition to the game in Kansas City against the Blues, Los Angeles hosts the Phoenix Coyotes at Staples Center. The home game will see Terry Murray make his debut behind the bench for the Kings.

“Ideally I’d like to have two games on two separate days so I can be at both of those games and be able to coach both those games but it is kind of a unique situation and we'll deal with it,” Murray said. “We have a lot of players here at training camp, 60 guys. It gives opportunity. The young guys are going to get into the first exhibition games and they’ve been through a week of training camp now with the rookie camp and so let’s see what you’ve learned so far.”

Murray, who previously coached in Washington, Philadelphia and Florida, inherits a Los Angeles team that finished with the fewest points in the Western Conference last season but features a wealth of young talent on its roster. Drew Doughty, the second pick in the 2008 Entry Draft and the first defenseman taken, already has garnered very favorable reviews.

“Doughty stood out,” Murray said. “He did a lot of positive things with the puck during the rookie scrimmages. He has a great head on his shoulders, he played the physical side of the game, he didn’t hesitate in his 1-on-1 confrontations, and he tried to show some authority with the puck.

“When you have an 18-year-old taking control like that, you have to watch that very closely, that is one of the things you have to evaluate properly and see how that fits in on your main club. I really like what I saw.”

Growing the game – The NHL regular season will open in less than two weeks with Tampa Bay playing the New York Rangers in Prague, Czech Republic, while Pittsburgh faces the Ottawa Senators in Stockholm, Sweden.

In the meantime, the League is branching out during the preseason to play games in various neutral-site locales across the United States and North America.

Besides the Blues-Kings contest in Kansas City, the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens meet Monday in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It will be a busy travel week for the Bruins, who then head to Moncton, New Brunswick, to face the New York Islanders on Tuesday before returning to Halifax on Thursday for a game with the Detroit Red Wings.

The Calgary Flames and Phoenix Coyotes play in Winnipeg on Thursday, while the Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers square off in London, Ontario, the following day. But the game not to be forgotten will involve the Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday from Roberval, Quebec – or Hockeyville, as it will be known after the city won the Kraft promotion to host the game at its Benoit Levesque Arena.

“I saw the last couple of years there with the Hockeyville, we had the chance to see how excited the people are to have teams come in,” Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau said. “I know there’s a lot of work that's been put in to win that contest. At the end of the day, I think it makes a lot of people happy.”

In its third year, the Hockeyville competition awards prize money – this year it was $100,000 – to the city with the winning bid. Roberval also contributed $200,000 itself toward arena upgrades. The Canadiens played in the inaugural Hockeyville game in 2006, recording a 7-3 win over the Senators in Salmon River, Nova Scotia.

Material from wire services and team media was used in this report.

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