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Tampa Bay Lightning begins long journey through another hockey season

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The journey starts again Thursday night.

This year, there will be different potholes, and different hazards. The traffic flow will be different. There will be new slumps and new injuries, nights when the penalty kill doesn’t work, nights when the power play is off, nights when a rough patch of ice diverts the puck.

This is the new season of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and, no, this year’s destination isn’t necessarily where last season ended.

A year ago, the Lightning lost in the Stanley Cup Finals, and a lot of fans have simply assumed the team would end up there again. But it isn’t necessarily true. Take the Boston Bruins, who won the President’s Cup with the most points in the league in 2013-14. Last year, the Bruins didn’t even make the playoffs.

On paper, the Lightning looks formidable. But remember, Tampa Bay barely got by Detroit in the opening playoff series last year. So nothing is guaranteed.

“We talked about it a little this morning,” said Steven Stamkos. “All that Finals talk and getting back there and preseason rankings and expectations, that’s all thrown out the window starting today. We’re looking to learn from the experiences we went through last year and to help us with the journey that starts tomorrow night, but all that stuff ends. It’s a fresh start.”

Or, as Brian Boyle puts it, “The finals are in June. This is October. We have to take care of our business now.”

The Lightning can expect a rougher ride. Last year, it did not lose three games in a row in the regular season. The team was fairly healthy. But this year, other teams are sure to give the Lightning their best shot. And who knows if last year’s greatness will be matched?

“You can’t have the mentality of ‘we have a good team. We have the same guys. Who cares what happens in regular season. We’ll just make the playoffs.’ If you have that mentality, you’ll be out of it by Christmas time.”

Lightning coach Jon Cooper loves the stories about last year’s Finals. No, he doesn’t consider a loss a waste. There were a lot of lessons learned along the way.

“But for that to take place, you have to make the playoffs,” Cooper said. “It’s like going offsides and the whistle blows. You’ll never know what you would have done with that breakaway. We’re extremely hungry. We’ve learned how to win close games. Now, it’s four months later. We have to get to the playoffs, and that’s what starts tomorrow night.”

Gary Shelton is one of the most recognized and honored sportswriters in the history of the state. He has won the APSE's national columnist of the year twice and finished in the top 10 eight times. He was named the Florida Sportswriter of the Year six times. Gary joined SaintPetersBlog in the spring, helping to bring a sports presence to the website. Over his time in sports writing, Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls, 10 Olympics, Final Fours, Masters, Wimbledons and college national championships. He was there when the Bucs won a Super Bowl, when the Lightning won a Stanley Cup and when the Rays went to a World Series. He has seen Florida, FSU and Miami all win national championships, and he covered Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden and Don Shula along the way. He and his wife Janet have four children: Eric, Kevin, K.C. and Tori. To contact, visit garysheltonsports@gmail.com.

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