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What we learned from the Lightning’s win over the Panthers

One exhibition game isn't a big sample size, but it indicated good things for Tampa Bay.

Two weeks of training camp don’t offer a lot of preparation. Judging by the small sample size that is one exhibition game, the Lightning made it count.

They took the ice in midseason form against the Panthers on Wednesday in Toronto rather than in preseason form. The Panthers were on the other end of that spectrum in their 5-0 loss. Their poor play — “standing around watching,” as coach Joel Quenneville said — can skew the assessment of the Lightning.

Related: Three things we know about the Capitals, the Lightning's first round-robin opponent

Tampa Bay played objectively well, but might the natural comparison to the other team on the ice have made it look better? We’ll know Monday, when the Lightning play their first round-robin game for playoff seeding against the Capitals, who won their exhibition matchup against the Hurricanes 3-2 on Wednesday.

“It’s a good base to build on,” coach Jon Cooper said. “I really liked a lot of things we did but we can’t read too much into it. There’s still a lot of hockey to play and a lot more important games.”

With that in mind, here’s what we learned from the exhibition game:

Fresh bodies

Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Jan Rutta (44) during the Blue vs. White scrimmage game July 20 at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

For months, players said this would be the best playoffs because the long break meant time to heal their aches and pains. Sure, but these are the same people who say there’s nothing like game reps to prepare for games.

Well, on Wednesday it looked like the players knew themselves best.

Ryan McDonagh was two games back from injury when the season stopped, his second absence in three months. The defenseman looked like the fully-healthy, on-top-of-his-game McDonagh who had made such an impact on this team.

He broke up what could have been a breakaway, while managing a loose, bouncing puck. McDonagh used his long strides to cut off Panthers defenseman Mark Pysyk and corral the puck.

Related: Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov are off to a good start

Center Brayden Point seemed fine in the regular season, but the difference is clear in hindsight. He looked stronger and faster on Wednesday.

Defenseman Jan Rutta is the only one who looked like he might have lingering effects from the leg injury he endured in February. He was only just starting to return to practice when the season stopped.

Ready to mix it up

Florida Panthers center Brian Boyle (9) fights Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (98) during the third period of Wednesday's exhibition game. [ NATHAN DENETTE | Associated Press ]

Cooper spoke about adding physicality into practices and scrimmages early on in training camp. He said hitting teammates goes against players’ natures, so they needed to create those moments.

The Lightning did not hesitate doling out hits against the Panthers. Or punches. Defenseman Mikhail Sergachev threw down with Panthers forward Brian Boyle, a former Lightning player with whom he tangled two years ago in the playoffs when Boyle was with the Devils.

Defenseman Erik Cernak laid a big hit on smaller Panthers center Frank Vatrano, and Panthers defenseman Josh Brown answered with a pick-on-someone-your-own-size shove back.

Related: What was it like to be at the Lightning's exhibition game with no fans?

The Lightning wanted to add more physicality to their game this year. Trading for Blake Coleman at the deadline was part of that. He doled out four hits on Wednesday, matching fellow center Cedric Paquette and defenseman Luke Schenn for the team high.

If there was any concern that players, or the team as a whole, might ease their way back into the physical game, that wasn’t the case — exhibition or not.

Smooth in net

Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) makes a save as Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) eyes the loose puck Wednesday. [ NATHAN DENETTE | Associated Press ]

Playoff success can come down to goalies. Lack of game reps is often hardest on them. The long layoff and abbreviated training camp didn’t seem to set netminders up for success.

Andrei Vasilevskiy, however, looked confident in net Wednesday. Where he took some time to find his footing in the regular season, he was smooth in the crease against the Panthers.

Florida’s 26 shots didn’t hugely test Vasilevskiy, who is once again a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, in terms of volume. But he was happy to see a few breakaways — quickly specifying only for the sake of being tested in an exhibition.

Related: The Lightning need Andrei Vasilevskiy to be where he was in March

Vasilevskiy didn’t make any dazzling saves, but he made the ones he needed to. He controlled rebounds well and didn’t give up many second chances.

Systems in place

Schenn probably wasn’t on anyone’s prop bet for who would score in the first game. But the defenseman’s goal in the second period demonstrated the Lightning’s system working and taking advantage of Florida’s breakdown.

The Panthers all collapsed to within a few yards of the net. Both Schenn and Braydon Coburn pinched into the faceoff circles. Schenn took the opportunity to sink a little lower and scored.

It was the defensemen reading the situation and finding their spots without taking big risks.

Alex Killorn was encouraged by the Lightning’s good habits and “not too many turnovers.” They didn’t have long to instill, or at least wake up, those habits during training camp, and many players had called it the most important thing to do.

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