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  1. Lightning

Euphoric about Lightning opener against Panthers

TAMPA — One by one, they were introduced.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper got a nice applause.

Then came big cheers for forward Ryan Callahan and goalie Ben Bishop and defenseman Victor Hedman.

The biggest ovation came for, of course, the captain and best player, Steven Stamkos.

The newly named Amalie Arena was all decked out in its opening-night best, the crowd was revved up and the 2014-15 Lightning stood in a circle at center ice ready to take its first strides into what many anticipate to be a special hockey season in Tampa Bay.

The Lightning was back. Finally.

It was like coming downstairs on Christmas morning and seeing all the gifts under the tree. The anticipation and excitement of what's next is usually better than the reality. In this case, you almost hated to see the dreaming end and the season begin.

"Those home openers are tough," Cooper said. "There's the long ceremony in the beginning. It's really exciting. And everybody is jacked up."

But, eventually, they had to drop the puck and, wouldn't you know it, the reality was pretty good, too.

A beauty of an overtime goal by Hedman and a 3-2 Lightning victory over the Panthers. That's how you open a season.

"That's what we do," Cooper joked. "We wanted to make sure (the fans) come back. So we give them a little bonus hockey and we make it exciting."

What a night.

There was the 6-foot-7 Bishop standing tall in goal and flashing leather with 19 saves. There was Stamkos ripping one-timers from the left faceoff circle. There was Callahan scoring a goal and standing precariously in front of shots unleashed by both his teammates and his opponents.

There was Tyler Johnson dismissing any thoughts of a sophomore slump by scoring the first Lightning goal of the season in the second period.

There was Radko Gudas hitting everything that moved, legally and otherwise. There were new guys Brendan Morrow, Jason Garrison, Anton Strahlman and Brian Boyle settling in, quickly becoming as familiar faces as Matt Carle and Alex Killorn and J.T. Brown.

In the end, it felt like so much more than just one game.

"It's just nice to get out there and play," Bishop said.

But it was, indeed, just one game. One of 82.

"We're very excited," Hedman said. "We know we have a great team in this locker room. We'll see. We have a lot of (work) ahead of us. It's a long season."

You have to keep reminding yourself just how long the hockey season is. Consider this: The baseball playoffs continue tonight, we're still more than a week away from the World Series, and this hockey season will still be going on when next baseball season begins.

That's six months from now.

Imagine all that will happen between now and then for the Lightning.

There will be injuries, trades, demotions and promotions. There will be winning streaks when it feels as if the Lightning is going to win the Stanley Cup. And there will be losing streaks that make you doubt that the Lightning will even make the playoffs.

There will be drama. Already there is a little with veteran defenseman Eric Brewer being a healthy scratch Thursday night and understandably irritated about it.

Players will get upset with Cooper. Cooper will get upset with the players. Players will get upset with each other. That's what happens when you spend practically every day with one another from fall to winter to spring.

But, if things go as expected for the Lightning, there will be a lot more good nights than bad. The wins should far outweigh the losses.

Maybe Jonathan Drouin will make a run at rookie of the year. Maybe Bishop will make a run at the Vezina Trophy as best goalie. Maybe Cooper will get consideration for the Jack Adams Award as best coach. Maybe Stamkos will be in line for the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player.

All of this could happen. But it can't happen today. And that's the point.

This isn't football where every day is critical and each loss is a reason for concern.

Over the course of a long hockey season, the Lightning will win games it doesn't deserve to win and lose games it should have won. A hot goalie — or a leaky one — can override the performance of an entire team.

To survive and thrive such peaks and valleys, you have to maintain an even keel, never getting too high when you win and never too low when you lose. And the teams that handle those swings the best are the ones that will be playing in May.

Still, there has been so much buzz about this Lightning season that you can't help but get wrapped up Thursday's opening-night result.

But pace yourself. Don't get too wound up. It's only one game. Just be happy the boys are back and it's hockey season again.

Oh, what the heck, feel free to get jacked up again Saturday night.

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