TAMPA — Jon Cooper looked at his first full 82-game schedule as Lightning coach and saw little room to ease into next season, with his team opening on the road against Stanley Cup finalists Boston and Chicago.
"We're jumping in with both feet on this one," he said of the Oct. 3 opener at the Bruins and the Oct. 5 game at the Blackhawks after the NHL released its schedules Friday. "We'll definitely have a feel for where we're at."
Another significant game to circle: former Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier returns to Tampa with the Flyers on Nov. 27 for the first time after Tampa Bay bought out his contract this offseason. He also returns April 10 in the final week of the season, during which the Lightning will celebrate the 10th anniversary of its Stanley Cup championship.
In the first season of realignment that has two divisions in each conference instead of three, the league's new scheduling format has all 29 other teams facing the Lightning at home and on the road. In the Lightning's new Atlantic Division — the league also announced division names Friday — Tampa Bay plays the Bruins, Panthers, Maple Leafs Canadiens and Sabres four times, and the Red Wings and Senators five.
The Lightning's schedule is home-heavy at the start and finish, with seven of the first 10 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum and 14 of the final 20.
"The home games bookend the season," Cooper said. "Everybody's like, 'You have to take advantage.' We have to put ourselves in a nice playoff position so we can take advantage of those home games down the stretch."
The league will take 17 days off from Feb. 9-25 to allow players to compete in the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. As a result, the season is condensed, with 16 games for the Lightning in March, for instance.
"Your start is imperative, just because you want to try to grab momentum with so many games in the condensed schedule," Cooper said.
Cooper, pleased his team has only 12 sets of back-to-back games, is concerned about long road stretches in the middle of the season, such as seven of the first eight games in January, given that the Lightning had the Eastern Conference's worst road record last season, 6-16-2.
As a first-year NHL coach, Cooper hasn't encountered the nuances of a schedule in an Olympic year, but he said the addition of veteran assistant Rick Bowness this offseason has helped him greatly. "He's been a great guy to lean on. He's watched (the NHL) every which way, through multiple lockouts, different things," Cooper said.
Other divisions: The other new divisions and their names: Metropolitan: Rangers, Islanders, Devils, Capitals, Penguins, Flyers, Hurricanes, Blue Jackets. Central: Blackhawks, Blues, Predators, Wild, Avalanche, Stars and Jets. Pacific: Kings, Ducks, Coyotes, Sharks, Canucks, Flames, Oilers.
Information from Times wires was used in this report.