Schedule limits early game opportunities for Lightning

Tampa Bay's Cory Conacher said it's tough to watch other teams start the season while the Lightning wait until Saturday. (DIRK SHADD |  Times)
Tampa Bay's Cory Conacher said it's tough to watch other teams start the season while the Lightning wait until Saturday. (DIRK SHADD | Times)
Published October 4
Updated October 4

The Lightning has only one chance to make an impression during the first week of the NHL season. One.

From Wednesday night, when the Capitals raised their Stanley Cup banner, until the following Wednesday, the Lightning will play one game. Only the Devils and the Panthers are in the same position.

Over the first week of the season, eight teams will play four games, 15 will play three and five will play two.

The Lightning has to wait until Saturday to place its first game. After it faces the Panthers at Amalie Arena, it won't play again until Thursday against the Canucks at home.

"It's kind of tough," wing Cory Conacher said. "You see these guys (Wednesday) night and we still have to wait a couple sleeps. It makes you that much more anxious to play and that more excited to play."

The Jets, Maple Leafs, Bruins, Predators and Golden Knights play at least three games in the first week.

Trivia: None of the past five Stanley Cup winners played fewer than three games over the first eight days of their winning season.

Last season the Capitals started with four games over that period. The Penguins played five in their 2016-17 Cup season and three in their 2015-16 title season.

"I don't think it's a disadvantage or an advantage," wing Yanni Gourde said. "I think it is just how the schedule is made. You just have to take it the way it is and be ready to go for the first game."

Fortunately for the Lightning, the Panthers start the season the same way, allowing neither team to shake off rust in prior games.

The similarities stop there. Though Florida has a strong chance at a playoff spot, it does not have near the same outside expectations as the Lightning.
Many fans sitting in blue Amalie Arena seats Saturday will likely expect the game to be the first en route to a long run in the direction of the Stanley Cup final.

"It's huge, but at the same time, you can't put too much pressure on yourself trying to prove too much in the first game," Gourde said.

Conacher expects things to fall into place as long as the Lightning plays the game it can. The key, he said, is to leave the rink with a positive mind-set, win or lose.

"You don't make the playoffs on the first night," he said. "You don't win the Stanley Cup on the first night."

And you don't have any control as to when you play and whom you play during the regular season. That's why defenseman Victor Hedman is not worrying about having to wait to start another run at the Stanley Cup.

Plenty of games are ahead.

"I think I have got the best job in the world, playing hockey games," Hedman said. "It's a full season, and that's what we train for in the summer. You don't train for the playoffs, but this is 82 games to be played before the playoffs start. For us, it is all about focusing on what we can control now, and that's the game on Saturday. And kind of get ready for that."

Johnson 'questionable' for opener

Hockey season hasn't started yet for Lightning coach Jon Cooper, so he is sticking with football references for now.

In the spirit of football injury reports, Cooper said Thursday that center Tyler Johnson was upgraded from doubtful to questionable for Saturday's game.

"We will see how he responds tomorrow, and definitely see how he responds Saturday," Cooper said.

Callahan cleared for contact

For the first time all preseason, Ryan Callahan was not wearing a red non-contact sweater on Thursday.

He was cleared for contact for the first time since his offseason shoulder surgery.

"He's a long ways from being cleared for games," Cooper said. "We get to work him in slowly in the contact department. That is ahead of schedule and great news."

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