TAMPA — Steven Stamkos peeked over his shoulder every second, maybe two, watching for the cue for Andrei Vasilevskiy to lead the Lightning onto the ice for warmups.
The long offseason finally came to an end Thursday, and the whole building shed last season like a snake ridding itself of dead skin. Neither team nor fans held on to anything.
Fans welcomed the Lightning into the new season as players skated through a video-board portal to raucous cheers from the announced sellout crowd of 19,092. Coach Jon Cooper received a loud chorus of “COOOOP,” and the expected players got the biggest cheers (as well as anthem singer Sonya Bryson-Kirksey).
And everyone left happy after the Lightning beat the Panthers 5-2.
Stamkos commented before the game that whether its the first game or 900th, you still get butterflies before the home opener.
“It’s nice to get out there and finally play meaningful games,” said Pat Maroon, a free-agent acquisition at forward, “go out there and sweat with the guys and enjoy it.”
The seven preseason games were great and all, but this is where it really starts.
Maroon gave the Lightning a 4-2 lead with less than seven minutes left in the game and quipped afterward that he was on pace for 82 goals this year. He has 88 goals in his eight-year career, so coach Jon Cooper said he’d wait and see how that worked out for Maroon.
When you win your home opener, even when it isn’t perfect, you can share levity.
The Lightning got on top of the Panthers early. Amalie Arena erupted when Nikita Kucherov scored the first goal of the season 6:39 in for a 1-0 lead. The goal came on a delayed penalty, and Tampa Bay had an advantage for more than 30 seconds.
Mikhail Sergachev found last season’s Hart Trophy winner at the top of the right circle. Kucherov fired a one-timer past Sergei Bobrovsky, the goalie who stymied him in the playoffs in April.
Sergachev finished the night with three assists. Before they knew the Rangers’ Mika Zibanejad had put up four points against the Jets, Kucherov told Sergachev he was leading the league in points. Sergachev responded by saying there was plenty of time for the “big guys” to put up more.
It would have been too simple for that first lead to last, or to say the Lightning took control of the game from there. They didn’t play a perfect game — they gave up the lead twice — but the Lighting never trailed.
The Panthers’ Mike Hoffman completed a nice play to tie the score early in the second period. Kevin Shattenkirk put the Lightning back on top eight minutes later with a knuckle puck off the crossbar.
Vincent Trocheck tied it again with a shorthanded goal midway through the third period. This time Ondrej Palat needed only 45 seconds to giving Tampa Bay back the lead, scoring on the same power play.
“What I liked in the third — I didn’t like that we gave up the lead, but I liked that we got it right back,” Cooper said. “So you kind of have that sinking feeling, but the guys were really positive on the bench.”
The Lightning generated the chances they needed to get the lead and then to protect it. Cooper didn’t love the “turnover bug” — the Lightning had six giveaways — or their four penalties but countered that with an acknowledgement of the high energy of the home opener.
Everyone was excited going into this one.
“You always want to win the first game at home, especially,” Palat said. “That was a big game.”
The Lightning are back.