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Lightning eager to play Panthers in exhibition game

It will be the first time Tampa Bay has played a team other than itself in more than four months.

TAMPA — In 140 days, you can fly around the world 84 times. You can walk across the country, from one coast to the other.

And now we’ve learned, you can spend that same amount of time in quarantine without playing a single hockey game.

Related: Lightning players, coaches surprised with personalized photo frames in Toronto

That’s right. It’s been 140 days since the Lightning took the ice March 10 against the Maple Leafs. Two days later, the NHL paused its season due to concerns about the coronavirus.

At last, the Lightning will return to action Wednesday at noon, when they play the Florida Panthers in an exhibition game in Toronto. It will be their first of four games in a two-week span.

“I think to see another color jersey will be a nice thing,” coach Jon Cooper said. “There’s been a lot of talk on the ice about, man, it’s going to be great to play somebody else.”

Related: Lightning players, coaches surprised with personalized photo frames in Toronto

Unlike their previous meetings with the Panthers, the Lightning will have to play without some mainstays in captain and center Steven Stamkos and defenseman Victor Hedman, a Norris Trophy finalist.

According to Cooper, Stamkos will not play in the exhibition as he recovers from a lower-body injury sustained during Phase 2 of the NHL’s reopening. Stamkos went through training camp without working a full session but was able to practice fully with the team Monday and Tuesday in Toronto.

Hedman stayed behind this week for “a personal matter” and is expected to join the team Friday, just in time for the Lightning’s first round-robin game against the Washington Capitals.

Related: Lightning’s new additions use pause to break the ice

Cooper said he doesn’t think the exhibition game itself will bear all that much weight — aside from state pride and it being the first time they’ll face another team since March — but he’s looking forward to seeing how his team looks against some competition outside of itself.

“You don’t really know where you’re at until you play somebody else,” Cooper said. “They try to expose flaws in your game and things we need to work on.”

Here’s a look at how the Panthers and Capitals match up against the Lightning.

How the Panthers look

Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, left, stops a shot by Lightning center Anthony Cirelli as Panthers left wing Mike Hoffman trails the play. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]

The Panthers will take be without defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who played significant minutes and contributed greatly during Florida’s regular-season games against Tampa Bay.

Before leaving for Toronto, Ekblad missed back-to-back practices in Sunrise. He skated with the team Monday, and the Panthers were off on Tuesday.

Against the Lightning, Ekblad registered at least two shots in every game. He also had three assists over the four-game series. Coach Joel Quenneville ruled him out for Wednesday’s game.

Related: Lightning’s Jon Cooper ‘happy’ after two weeks of training camp

“I don’t think we’re preoccupied with what Tampa is going to be doing in the game, technically,” Quenneville said. “I think both teams, I’m sure their motivation at the end of the day, you want to come out of (the exhibition) clean and neat, everybody ready to go for the first game.

“But it’s a game where you can work on either special teams or the pace of the game, and it’s not the same (players) you’ve been out there against every day for the last couple of weeks, so we’ll be looking at that, as well.”

Looking ahead to the Capitals

Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov skates with the puck past Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin. [ NICK WASS | AP ]

The Capitals left a sour taste in the Lightning’s mouth in 2019, sweeping the three games between the teams before the new year and the stoppage in play due to the pandemic.

The teams will face off in the first of three round-robin games Monday at 4 p.m.

“Two good hockey teams,” Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom said. “Obviously, (the Lightning are) a very skilled team, and we’ve had our battles over the years.”

In the first matchup of the season, Tampa Bay couldn’t protect a two-goal lead going into the final period. The next game was worse, as the Lightning lost Nikita Kucherov in the second period after the right wing took a shot to the head from the Capitals’ John Carlson. Tampa Bay’s special teams came up short in the final contest, as the Lightning went 0-for-7 on the power play.

Both rosters changed at the trade deadline. Tampa Bay added defenseman Zach Bogosian and forwards Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow. The Capitals acquired Brenden Dillow — a teammate of Goodrow’s in San Jose — and Ilya Kovalchuk from Montreal.

Monday’s contest will be the first meeting between the teams since the changes to their rosters.

Looking back at the Lightning-Panthers 2019-20 series

Regular-season series: Lightning 3, Panthers 1

Players of note: Tampa Bay’s Alex Killorn, Florida’s Jonathan Huberdeau

Oct. 3: Lightning 5, Panthers 2

  • Storyline: Season opener in Tampa helped spark Lightning to a five-goal night. Mikhail Sergachev led the Bolts with three points (all assists).

Oct. 5: Panthers 4, Lightning 3

  • Storyline: Early mistakes cost Tampa Bay in the second game of the season and prevented what would have been a series sweep. Florida’s Mike Hoffman notched two power-play goals in less than 2 minutes, while Noel Acciari scored the Panthers’ third goal less than 10 seconds after the second Tampa Bay penalty expired.

Dec. 10: Lightning 2, Panthers 1

  • Storyline: Strong defensive play allowed the Lightning, led by Killorn’s two points (one goal, one assist), to overcome a low-scoring night. It wasn’t for a lack of shots on goal, as Tampa Bay had 48 against Sergei Bobrovsky, the goaltender who backstopped the Blue Jackets’ past the Lightning in last year’s playoffs.

Dec. 23: Lightning 6, Panthers 1

  • Storyline: Special teams paid off as three of Tampa Bay’s six goals came on the power play. Brayden Point led the Lightning with three points (one goal, two assists).

Contact Mari Faiello at Follow @faiello_mari.