A trek through the Czech Republic is just the beginning — literally — of a compelling Lightning 2008-09 regular-season schedule.
The schedule, released Thursday, is lighter on division play than usual and heavy on extremes.
The season opens with games Oct. 4-5 against the Rangers at O2 Arena in Prague.
That stint is followed by five straight games at the St. Pete Times Forum, two of which are against Southeast Division foes, Carolina and Atlanta.
"A coach is never happy with the schedule," coach Barry Melrose said. "Is it perfect? No. Is it terrible? No.
"We've just got to do our job, and that's win our home games early, and that sets us up pretty good."
Twenty-four of the Lightning's 40 home games will be played on Thursday, Friday or Saturday.
The schedule includes two four-game homestands, two of five games and one of six games. In two West Coast swings, the Lightning plays the entire Western Conference at least once, and it has home-and-homes against the Avalanche, Sharks and Wild.
After a game Jan. 4 at Atlanta, the Lightning embarks on a six-day cross-country trip to play Phoenix, Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose. It returns to face the Flyers on Jan. 15 at the St. Pete Times Forum.
"I like road trips for team bonding," Melrose said, noting the number of new players the Lightning has acquired along with its new coach. "That's what we'll use the European trip for.
"Same with the trips to the West Coast and western Canada — a trip to come together and do some good things."
Teams play division opponents six times each this season, down from eight last year.
After a four-game homestand ending March 24 against the Blue Jackets, the Lightning plays six of its last nine on the road. Three of them are against division teams.
In its last two home games, the Lightning confronts last season's top two scorers, Eastern Conference champion Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin (47 goals, 106 points) and Washington's league MVP, Alex Ovechkin (league-leading 65 goals, 112 points).
VERNON JOINS STAFF: Former goaltender Mike Vernon, a two-time Stanley Cup champion and the playoff MVP in 1997, has joined the Lightning as a special assistant to the vice president of hockey operations. He will assist in hockey-related matters, including providing guidance to the team's goaltenders, a team release said.
Melrose said most of Vernon's daily duties are to be determined, but working with goaltenders won't fill a lot of his time. Longtime goaltenders coach Jeff Reese is under contract but in limbo.
"(Assistant coach) Cap Raeder is a guy I depend on a lot for goaltenders," Melrose said. "I think he'll be great working with (Olaf) Kolzig, (Mike) Smith and (Karri) Ramo. That's the guy I know and trust as far as goaltenders are concerned. Mike's role will be looked at as we go."