SUNRISE — It was only preseason.
Ask Lightning players and coaches to assess the team's 5-2-0 exhibition record, and that phrase prefaced just about any critique.
Still, center Valtteri Filppula said of winning, "It's definitely better than losing."
True enough, but with the preseason complete after Saturday's 5-3 loss to the Panthers at the BB&T Center, it is natural to wonder if won-loss records mean much of anything this time of year.
Training camp is for building rosters, instilling organizational standards and habits, and fine-tuning systems. For the Lightning, it also gave players a better feel for coach Jon Cooper, who enters his first full NHL season with new assistants Rick Bowness and George Gwozdecky.
As Cooper said of the regular-season standings, "I know when I wake up in the morning, we're going to have zero points."
At the same time, "Winning is learned," he said. "We can't predict what's going to happen in the regular season, but we want to build that mentality now."
Especially for Tampa Bay, which has missed the playoffs two years in a row and five of the past six.
The Lightning also is getting younger with players from its AHL affiliate and perhaps Jonathan Drouin, 18, the No. 3 overall pick of this year's draft. With that kind of turnover, believing things are clicking can make the difference between initiating in a game and falling back on one's heels.
"Confidence is so important," Filppula said. "If you are doing good things and feeling good about your game, it definitely carries over. If things are working, you feel more comfortable going into the year."
Saturday's loss provided some comfort and concern.
The Lightning had six bubble players in the lineup and for the most part, with shots 22-22, kept pace with a Panthers team with all its regulars. Brett Connolly and Steven Stamkos had goals to tie for the team lead with four. And Richard Panik's five-minute major penalty was killed off with just two shots allowed.
But puck management in the defensive zone was suspect at times, and the Lightning several times was pinned in its zone. The line of Panik, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, which has created so much excitement, was a combined minus-7. And goaltender Anders Lindback had two softies among the four goals he allowed, excluding an empty-netter.
Still, said Marty St. Louis, who also had a goal, "It was a pretty good camp for us. … The loss doesn't mean we're not ready to go. We just have to understand how much harder it's going to be. You can't bring an average game in the NHL if you want to win."
In that sense, perhaps Saturday's game will be a lesson learned, not a terribly bad end point to a preseason in which the Lightning tied a team record for wins.
"We're a new team, a new staff. Ask me that question Christmas time," Cooper said when asked if the team was ready. "To get everything going and know what we expect, it takes time, but I like where we're at."
Even at 0-0-0.
First—1, TB, Stamkos 4 (St. Louis, Drouin), 3:45. 2, TB, Connolly 4 (Gudas, Panik), 7:41. 3, Fla, Boyes 2 (Versteeg, Kulikov), 11:33. Penalties—Fla bench, served by Huberdeau (too many men), 8:38.
Second—4, Fla, Gomez 1 (Huberdeau, Campbell), 1:19 (pp). 5, Fla, Winchester 1 (Goc, Kulikov), 5:25. Penalties—Hedman, TB (holding), :35; Stamkos, TB (unsportsmanlike conduct), 2:04; Gudbranson, Fla (unsportsmanlike conduct), 2:04; Panik, TB, served by Drouin, minor-major (roughing, boarding), 16:29; Winchester, Fla (roughing), 16:29.
Third—6, TB, St. Louis 2 (Stamkos, Salo), 2:02. 7, Fla, Versteeg 1 (Kopecky, Barkov), 11:22. 8, Fla, Versteeg 2 (Campbell, Gilbert), 19:00 (en). Penalties—Upshall, Fla (interference), 11:50. Shots—TB 11-4-7—22. Fla 6-9-7—22. PP opps—TB 0 of 2; Fla 1 of 2. Goalies—TB, Lindback 1-2-0 (21 shots-17 saves). Fla, Thomas 1-0-0 (22-19). A—12,547 (17,040).