Lightning's preseason first step on road with single goal: Stanley Cup

Rashelle Hill, 21, left, of Clearwater and her sister Amy Hill, 10, cheer the Lightning’s first goal.
Rashelle Hill, 21, left, of Clearwater and her sister Amy Hill, 10, cheer the Lightning’s first goal.
Published Sept. 23, 2015


Stanley Cup or bust.

Really, that's the only way you can look at this 2015-16 Lightning season, which sorta kinda got underway Tuesday with the preseason opener against the Nashville Predators.

Anything short of a Stanley Cup will be considered a failed season, wouldn't you say?

Tough expectations, for sure, but that's what you get when you barely lose the Stanley Cup final and return pretty much the same team the following season.

But here's the rub: the Lightning cannot win the Stanley Cup today. It's going to take days and weeks and months of meticulous preparation, grueling hard work and extreme focus just to get as far as it got a season ago and that was still short of the Cup.

All the blood, sweat and tears that define the long regular season and the most demanding postseason in all of sports cannot be skipped. There is no fast-forward button to the NHL season. For the Lightning, the first step is the most important. That first step starts now — with this training camp, with this preseason, with Tuesday night's game and another tonight.

"Four days into camp, we're farther ahead than we were four weeks into the season two years ago," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

That's the good part, having a group of veterans that knows what it takes to get within reach of hockey's holy grail. But that can be the hard part, too.

"Those are the little bit of the challenges of trying to keep the guys heads into it and understanding what we have ahead of us," Cooper said.

What lies ahead will not be easy.

There will be injuries because there always are in hockey. There will be slumps because that's the way hockey works. They will run into cold streaks and hot goalies, long road trips and short homestands.

Everyone talks about how short the Lightning offseason has been. But just think about how long the season will be. The playoffs are seven months away. This baseball season is not even over and the next one will begin before the Stanley Cup playoffs get here. The Super Bowl will happen a couple of months before the hockey playoffs get cranked up.

With so much road between now and then, there are going to potholes and detours and maybe a crash or two before the Lightning reaches the finish line. That's why it has to worry about the first mile — the preseason — before the last mile.

"This is all about getting ready for the first game of the season," Lightning forward Alex Killorn said. "These games are games to tune up and get yourself ready. … I think we're focused on just this right now and not winning the Eastern Conference finals or anything like that."

Getting ready for the opener on Oct. 8 against the Flyers should be the only point of this training camp. Other than finding a backup goalie to keep the seat of the injured Andrei Vasilevskiy warm until he returns in a couple of months, there might not be any positional battles. Barring injury, the Lightning team the left the ice after the Game 6 loss in the final to the Blackhawks is pretty much the one that will open the season against the Flyers.

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When you look up and down the lineup, there are no major concerns. The scoring, led by Steven Stamkos, is potent. The defense, led by Victor Hedman, is solid. The goaltending, most notably No. 1 man Ben Bishop, is among the league's best.

"I think it is an advantage with so many familiar faces coming back," Stamkos said. "Hopefully we can pick up where we left off last year."

The only thing that could get the Lightning is the Lightning itself.

"Our standards are a little different because they get raised every year," Cooper said. "I think we've gone, the two years I've been here, from a team that was picked at one end of the standings and, now two years later, we're picked at the other end of the standings. So naturally that changes the expectations."

But expectations cannot be replaced by complacency. That's the danger. The Lightning can't act as if getting back to the final is a given. It would serve the Lightning well to remember just how close it came to getting knocked out by the Red Wings in last season's first round of the playoffs.

"But I think we're readily equipped (to deal with the preparation of the season)," Cooper said. "It's just a matter of how we position ourselves for Game 1 against Philadelphia."

The team that took the ice Tuesday night was far from the Cup-contending team you'll see on opening night. Stamkos and Hedman and Killorn played. So did a few other veterans. But there was a healthy dose prospects and there will be even more tonight when the team travels to Nashville.

Don't look at the results of these games. Look at the process.

"This," Cooper said of the preseason, "is the first step."

For a Lightning team with Cup dreams, this preseason is the most important step.