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Without a real preseason, Lightning emphasize scrimmages

Nothing can replicate a real game, but playing against your teammates comes closest.
Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Curtis McElhinney gets beat on a goal by left wing Ondrej Palat during a scrimmage at playoff training camp Wednesday at Amalie Arena.
Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Curtis McElhinney gets beat on a goal by left wing Ondrej Palat during a scrimmage at playoff training camp Wednesday at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jul. 15, 2020|Updated Jul. 16, 2020

No matter what the schedule is, your first instinct is to find the fun part. High school students look for their lunch period. Hockey players look for the first game — or in the case of training camp after a four-month hiatus, the first scrimmage.

“It’s no coincidence it only took three days here for us to get into a scrimmage,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said Wednesday.

When players got the camp schedule, they were eager to not go five or more days before facing off against each other.

It’s not just that scrimmages are the fun part. They’re also a tool and the best way to create game-like circumstances, particularly when players have only a two-week training camp and one exhibition game before play starts for real next month.

The Lightning specifically set up their camp roster with the idea of creating two teams. Each side has two goalies, three forward lines and five defensemen. It’s not a full lineup, but it’s close.

Tampa Bay Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (71) and left wing Ondrej Palat (18) celebrate a goal by Palat as Luke Witkowski (28) skates off during Wednesday's scrimmage.
Tampa Bay Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (71) and left wing Ondrej Palat (18) celebrate a goal by Palat as Luke Witkowski (28) skates off during Wednesday's scrimmage. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Veteran forwards Gemel Smith and Luke Witkowski were invited to add physicality for the NHL regulars to go against. Defenseman Cal Foote is a top prospect with a long reach who is hard to get around. Forward prospect Alex Barre-Boulet is good with the puck.

When players return from any time off, they stress how hard it is to replicate games. No amount of repetition in practice can emulate them.

Scrimmages assess where you are as a player and as a team. Tuesday’s drills added physicality, but Wednesday had a different kind of intensity.

“It’s big because you can practice all you want, but (Wednesday), you feel different when you play against different lines,” wing Ondrej Palat said. “You get a little more in game mode than just a practice.”

Scrimmages take away the time and space players have in drills, forcing them to react more quickly.

And there’s nothing like competition to up the ante. Coach Jon Cooper pointed out Tuesday that hitting a teammate doesn’t come naturally. It’s true, but no one wants to lose to his friends, so bragging rights can be a powerful motivator.

On Wednesday, defenseman Luke Schenn lined up forward Yanni Gourde along the boards, though Gourde escaped the hit. Defenseman Victor Hedman and forward Pat Maroon battled over the puck.

This was only the first of the intrasquad showings. Cooper said the Lightning would start slow and amp up, just like camp overall. The Lightning have formal scrimmages scheduled next week for Monday and Friday.

Two days after that Friday scrimmage, the Lightning are to leave for their postseason hub city, Toronto.

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“I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Cooper said of Wednesday’s scrimmage. “You’re not going to see any big physical hits or anything, but guys were taking guys out, guys were being responsible. You look for the compete level, and it was most definitely there.”

Related: Lightning reaches 100,000 meals donated to Feeding Tampa Bay

It was enough to see that the chemistry between forwards Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov is still there, for example. The two still have that sense of where the other is on the ice, something that has developed over two years as linemates.

McDonagh was encouraged not to see too many turnovers and odd-man rushes, issues the Lightning dealt with during the regular season.

“The big thing I was impressed with was it wasn’t too sloppy, for the most part,” McDonagh said. “We stressed a lot of structure and being in the right spots and taking care of the puck when it’s on our stick.”

That’s not to say the Lightning looked game ready. They were assessing the scrimmage for what it was: the first one on Day 3 of training camp.

McDonagh did say the low-scoring affair (2-0 Blue Team, with an empty-netter) was odd for the highly skilled Lightning.

The first goal got a little celebration. Palat grabbed a deflected pass and threw the puck past goalie Curtis McElhinney. He threw his arms up, and forward Anthony Cirelli came from behind with a hug. Palat joked that Cirelli was even more excited than he was.

The first goal feels good, especially when it’s four months after the last one.

Contact Diana C. Nearhos at dnearhos@tampabay.com. Follow @dianacnearhos on Twitter and @tampabaytimeslightning on Instagram.

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