Sunday, September 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Jones: After last season's flop, this is shaping up as must-see TV for Lightning

TAMPA — Steven Stamkos watched hockey on television Wednesday and Thursday nights.

"If I'm not playing," he said, "I try to catch it."

Ryan Callahan watched a bunch of hockey, too.

"It gets you ready," Callahan said. "That's for sure."

For both, Friday night's game was more than just another Lightning season opener. Both missed most of last season — a lost season, as it turned out, for Tampa Bay. In fact, it was a lost season partly because those two veteran leaders lost so much time.

So, until Friday finally got here, the best they could do was watch it on TV.

"You want to get going," Stamkos said. "You want to join the party."

RELATED:gt; Lightning opens season with win over Panthers.

The party got under way Friday night against the Panthers inside a sold-out Amalie Arena.

And so it begins. The Lightning is back. Expectations are as high as ever. That's the buzz, not only here but all over. Some are even talking Stanley Cup.

"Internally, expectations are just as high," Stamkos said. "If people want to talk about us, that's great."

As coach Jon Cooper puts it: better to be talked about than ignored. And better to be considered a favorite than the alternative.

"But it doesn't change our approach or anything," Stamkos said. "We know it was a disappointing year last year and, to be successful, you need a lot of things to fall into place."

That starts with Stamkos being healthy. When healthy, he's one of the best players on the planet, and perhaps the league's purest goal scorer. When he's not healthy, he scores as many goals as you and I do. How can that possibly not hurt the Lightning?

LIGHTNING JOURNAL: Brayden Point stars with goal, two assists.

You're not supposed to use injuries as an excuse because no one else cares. Every team has injuries. But when you miss the playoffs by a point and your best player misses 65 games, it's hard — and not really fair — to say it didn't have an impact.

Missing Callahan hurt, too. He missed 63 games. Now, both are back.

"To be able to come back here and feel the way I do and to be able to play the game that makes me successful," Callahan said, "well, it's very exciting."

There's a different feeling about this team as compared to a season ago. Last summer, the Lightning talked a good game, saying all the things you're supposed to say about being ready and paying attention to details and one game at a time and blah, blah, blah.

RELATED: Joe Smith's takeaways from Friday's Lightning-Panthers game.

It talked the talk but couldn't skate the skate.

Truth was, the team was complacent. After trips to the Stanley Cup final in 2015 and Eastern Conference final in 2016, the Lightning acted like a playoff spot was in the bag last season. Basically, the fellas acted as if all they had to do was throw their sticks on the ice and then wait to find out who was coming to town for the first round of the playoffs.

A sluggish start was followed by devastating injuries. The Lightning fell into such a deep hole that a late-season rally wasn't enough to make the playoffs. Ultimately, it got what it deserved — a spring playing golf instead of hockey.

But this time, you do sense something a little different. A little more determination. A little more humbleness.

"The hunger in this room … is the highest that I've seen it," Callahan said.

THROUGH OUR LENS: Here's what the Lightning opener looked like to Tampa Bay Times photographers.

And the talent might be at the highest the Lightning has had since the days that names such as Vinny, Marty and Richy called Tampa Bay home. Nikita Kucherov is a top 10 NHLer. Victor Hedman is a top five defenseman. Andrei Vasilevskiy has the makings of future Vezina Trophy candidate.

There's depth and experience and leadership and grit and a nice splash of youth, too.

But what's especially nice is the time for all the talk and predictions is over. It's time to actually get out there and play and see what the Lightning has.

"Everything starts fresh," Cooper said. "Everybody is in first place. It's just an exciting time."

The party continues tonight in Sunrise. You can watch it on television.

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