It all begins for real tonight at Amalie Arena. The Tampa Bay Lightning open the 2017-18 season against the Florida Panthers, the first of four meetings between the two teams.
For the Lightning, they seek a return to the playoffs after missing the post season by a single point last year. If they can avoid significant injuries to key players, always a big “if,” they have every reason to expect to be playing hockey well into the spring.
Just 28 months after playing in the Stanley Cup Finals, the core of that Tampa Bay team remains. Most importantly, captain Steven Stamkos returns from a knee injury that limited him to only 17 games last season.
Along with Stamkos, most of the players from that Eastern Conference Championship team remain. Chief among the centers and wingers is Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, and Assistant Captain Ryan Callahan,
Nine of the current 15 centers and wingers played on that team. The Lightning also signed left winger Chris Kunitz from the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The defense also has some experienced and successful veterans. Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, and Andrej Sustr have been mainstays on a solid defense, now bolstered by the signing of Dan Girardi from the New York Rangers.
In the nets, Ben Bishop is gone, but 23-year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy has shown himself to be a highly capable NHL goaltender.
Tampa Bay hopes to get off to a good beginning, because the first week of their schedule brings several challenges. On Saturday, they face the Panthers again, this time at the BB&D Center in Sunrise.
The Lightning will remain at home for three games next week, but it will be a challenging homestand. On Monday, the Washington Capitals, last year’s President’s Cup winner, will visit, followed by the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday and playoff participant St. Louis on Saturday.
But that does not dampen the enthusiasm for Friday night’s opener. Even though coach Jon Cooper and most of the players have been involved in several opening nights, they are excited to get things going.
“This is akin to the first night of the playoffs. These are the two biggest nights of the year,” Cooper said after Friday’s morning skate. “Everybody starts fresh. Everybody’s in first place. It’s an exciting time.”
The Lightning were 2-2 against the Panthers last season, with one of those losses coming in overtime. Florida leads the all-time series 131-121.