STOCKHOLM — Nikita Kucherov passed his stick into the crowd of kids above the tunnel as he came off the ice from Thursday’s practice. Many hands grabbed for it and two held on.
At the first session open to the public, the two kids played tug-o-war over the stick for more than five minutes, getting increasingly aggressive until security separated them.
That wasn’t the only tussle, but players issued other sticks in a more peaceably manner. Kevin Shattenkirk grabbed a couple of pucks to toss into the crowd and held onto his sticks. Ryan McDonagh found a girl off to the side some and gave his stick to her.
Swedish hockey fans, clearly amped, don’t get many chances to see NHL players. The Lightning and Sabres have been in Stockholm for the whole week, but Thursday represented fans’ first opportunity to see them skate.
The other opportunities occur Friday and Saturday, when the reasons they’ve spent talking and touring Sweden all week give way to something more important: the games.
Steven Stamkos, interviewed on the video board during the mini-skills competition between the Lightning and Sabres’ practices, commented they’ve done everything but play.
“I’d be lying if I said this is just another regular-season game,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “But at the end of the day, it’s too big games. I can’t wait for (Friday) to really start focusing on the game.”
These two games count. All games count in the standings, but the match against the Sabres pits two division rivals against each other. It’s not a two-off against a Western Conference team they won’t see again this season.
The Lightning haven’t started the season the way they wanted to, but the Sabres feel good about their play. Right now, Buffalo sits at second in the Atlantic Division with 20 points. The Lightning are sixth with 14.
Coach Jon Cooper isn’t going to get too caught up in the standings. The Lighnting are tied for fewest games played in the league at 13. The Calgary Flames have played 18, which means they’ve had an opportunity for 36 points vs the Lighnting’s 26. Buffalo has played 15 games.
“While you have these games, you do have to get points out of them,” Cooper said. “I’m not going to sit here and say we have to win both of these games. I want us to play well.”
He’s looking for consistency more than he’s demanding two wins. But the coach also figures if they consistently play well, they have a good chance at the points.
Consistent has been the buzzword, thus far. The Lightning has been up and down and all around through their first 13 games.
They’ve swiveled between allowing too many chances and not allowing many. They’ve scored seven goals twice and only one or two in five other games. Penalties have been an issue as well.
Buffalo brings the third best power play in the league into these games, against the Lighnting’s fifth-worst kill. Victor Olofsson has six power-play goals on the season. The Sabres have four players (Olofsson, Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner and Rasmus Dahlin) with more than 10 power-play shots. Nikita Kucherov is the Lightning’s only player above that mark.
Eichel leads the Sabres with 17 points. Five players have more than 10 points on the season. Steven Stamkos leads the Lightning with 13 points and three others have reached double digits.
The biggest question going into this game has been Hedman’s status. The defenseman was hurt in in the Oct. 29 game against the Rangers and hasn’t played since. He practiced Tuesday and Thursday.
“I’m up for it,” Hedman said about playing Friday. “I felt good again today. The final decision is tomorrow. We’ll see how it goes, but I’m hopeful.”
That’s not a hard yes, but it certainly sounds likely that Hedman plays before a crowd longing to see their native on the ice.
Contact Diana C. Nearhos at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @dianacnearhos.