TAMPA — The preferred ambiance at Lightning training camp:
Day 1: Pleasant.
Day 2: Spirited.
Day 3: Hellfire?
This is the challenge of re-starting a hockey season just in time for the playoffs. All the normal patterns get tossed aside in the name of quickly ratcheting up for postseason intensity.
Naturally, Day 3 on Wednesday won’t be quite that unhinged. But the Lightning did start banging each other around a little Tuesday, and they will have their first scrimmages on Wednesday. The key is being careful not to overdo it in the early going, while also being cognizant that your first playoff game is in four weeks.
“It’s a different mindset going into camp,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “We know what’s at stake a few weeks from now. You’re not going to have nine exhibition games where you feel out players and give other players a chance. From the start, the team that’s probably going to be on the ice for the first (exhibition) is probably going to play in all those (playoff) games.
“It’s habits and mindset. You have to ramp it up in practice. You have to play hard in practice.”
This isn’t about getting in shape. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be. Most players were responsible enough to get their skating and conditioning up to speed before camp began. And by that, I mean no one on ice appeared as winded as I was from walking up the stairs at Amalie Arena.
The greater challenge is being prepared mentally when the Lightning leave July 26 to begin postseason preparations in Toronto. That means intensity. That means chemistry. That means camaraderie. That means all the things a team normally spends six months building toward.
“No question,” coach Jon Cooper said. “It was pivotal … having our guys here in Tampa the whole time, for the most part, I thought was a really good sign for our group. They all kept in contact. They did things together. They just did a whole bunch of things that I thought was really cohesive to keeping our group together. Especially with the new guys in (Blake) Coleman and (Barclay Goodrow) and (Zach Bogosian). And guys like (Jan Rutta) who had been away for so long because of injury. It feels like we don’t have any new guys anymore.
“That is going to come in handy when you’re sprinting into this tournament.”
This is clearly something that has been worrying the Lightning all summer. If you recall, Tampa Bay was one of the few teams that voted against the revised playoff format because players were concerned about getting a bye during the play-in round, then having to face a team already coming out of a do-or-die series.
Tampa Bay, instead, will play three round-robin games against Washington, Boston and Philadelphia in the first week of August that will help determine seeding for first-round matchups. Then they’ll face the winner of one of the play-in series.
“I think it’s going to be very tough to mentally simulate a playoff game or pretend you’re playing a playoff game,” forward Alex Killorn said. “But we’re going to have to find a way.”
Cooper said the challenge is getting the players prepared quickly without wearing them down. They’ll take a day off after the scrimmages on Wednesday, then have intrasquad games scheduled for early next week.
In between, there are tweaks to be made on special teams and in some other areas that Cooper said the coaching staff noticed while reviewing the season’s first 70 games on video during the four-month shutdown.
“Every team is going through the same kind of thing we are so I don’t think anyone is going to have an advantage,” Hedman said. “I think the team that has the advantage at the start is the one that can really go into that (playoff) mindset right away.”