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Lightning raises a banner, then this year's expectations (w/video)

TAMPA — At exactly 7:35 Thursday night, the Eastern Conference Champion banner was unveiled high above the Amalie Arena ice. With it, memories of spring's glorious Stanley Cup run rushed back into focus.

Tyler Johnson's season-saving goals. Victor Hedman's breakout postseason. Ben Bishop's clutch saves. As the Lightning looked up, what was it thinking of its new banner? Proud of its accomplishment or a bitter source of motivation for the banner that wasn't there?

"We won the conference, which is a pretty big accomplishment," Bishop said. "We're proud of it."

Moments later, however, that sense of accomplishment and all that happened in 2014-15 was packed away. The puck dropped on the 2015-16 season, and now begins the quest to go one step farther. From now on, the only leftover memory of last season: unfinished business.

"I don't know how it can't not be," coach Jon Cooper said.

As the Lightning players were introduced one by one before Thursday's sloppy, yet dramatic, 3-2 OT victory over the Flyers, you couldn't help but think this team is a lock to get back to the Stanley Cup final. It's almost the exact same team from a season ago, and they know what it takes to navigate the most grueling postseason in all of sports.

"It's really irrelevant right now," Bishop said. "It's hard to even think about the playoffs before the (season gets going). We're just really worried about the first little bit of the season. It's so far away, and there are so many things that have to happen before you even get to that."

A lot can go wrong, of course. Injuries to key players. Unexpected off seasons by expected top players. And, topping the list: complacency. Yet you do get the feeling the Lightning is completely aware of the pitfalls facing a team with high expectations.

"We have to be prepared each and every night," forward Ryan Callahan said.

While this is set up to be another banner (literally) season for the Bolts, it is rather easy to paint a scenario in which the Lightning will have to sweat out some dicey times over the next several months.

First off, the league has done Tampa Bay no favors. Seven of its next nine games are on the road. That includes tough joints such as Chicago, Nashville and St. Louis. You can't make the playoffs in October, but you sure can play yourself out of the playoffs.

It sounds crazy, but there are all kinds of statistics that suggest that teams out of the playoff pack even as early as Halloween have a tough time making the postseason. And if you're not among the postseason teams by each of the other holidays — Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's — then you're really in trouble.

"You want to be in the playoffs at the end of the month," Bishop said. "You don't want to be chasing from the start. … It's going to be important to get off to a good start this first week or two."

Cooper seems like too good of a coach and the locker room is made up of too many solid leaders to let a false sense of security set in. But there's more to it than that. It's not a cliche to suggest that the Lightning is going to get every opponent's best effort every night.

"It's eyes wide open now," Cooper said. "We're not sneaking up on anybody this year."

You would think that any professional hockey team is geared up to play every single night, but it does appear that there really is something to teams getting up for elite clubs like the Lightning.

"No doubt," Callahan said. "It's a real thing."

"Absolutely," Bishop said. "Teams used to come in here and think vacation and get some points. I think we surprised a lot of teams a couple of years ago when we made the playoffs. Last year, I don't think we surprised teams, but they still weren't ready for it. I think this year, everybody is going to come in giving their best."

For the Lightning, you can understand not being able to get psyched up for all 82 games. Motivation won't be an issue for taking on the Rangers or Canadiens. But getting up to play the Panthers on a Monday night in November or the Hurricanes in the middle of February is not so easy.

But for teams such as the Panthers and Hurricanes, the fear of getting embarrassed by the Lightning, not to mention the chance to measure their standing in the league, is reason to circle Tampa Bay on their schedules.

"You go into a city like Chicago or New York and you knew those teams were one of the best and you wanted to stack yourself up against them," Bishop said. "Now we're the team teams want to stack themselves up against. It's something we have to be ready for. It's something to be proud of that we put ourselves in this position, but at the same time, we've got to be ready for it because we're going to get everybody's best every single night."

The goal for the Lightning: giving its best every single night. If it does, the Lightning will raise more than a banner when it's all said and done and played. It will raise a Stanley Cup.

Lightning players circle the ice and raise their sticks during the banner presentation before Thursday’s opener.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Lightning players circle the ice and raise their sticks during the banner presentation before Thursday’s opener.

Lightning raises a banner, then this year's expectations (w/video) 10/08/15 [Last modified: Friday, October 9, 2015 9:17am]
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