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Top draft pick Jack Finley stands tall in first Lightning scrimmage

Tampa Bay might have been rusty in its first scrimmage, but that’s to be expected for the third day of camp.
Lightning forward Jack Finley (62) battles with center Yanni Gourde (37) during the Lightning Blue vs White scrimmage Wednesday at TGH Ice Plex in Brandon.
Lightning forward Jack Finley (62) battles with center Yanni Gourde (37) during the Lightning Blue vs White scrimmage Wednesday at TGH Ice Plex in Brandon. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 7, 2021|Updated Jan. 7, 2021

BRANDON — Lightning coach Jon Cooper was quick to point out that his team’s first training camp scrimmage Wednesday night wasn’t perfect and when Tampa Bay plays its regular-season opener in a week, it won’t be perfect then, either.

There’s less time to prepare for this season and no preseason games to evaluate players against opponents because of the coronavirus. But the scrimmage, which capped the Lightning’s third day of camp, offered the team its first opportunity to skate in anything that resembles a game since its lifted the Stanley Cup in September.

“They did all the things you want,” Cooper said of the White team’s 2-0 win over the Blue. “They worked hard, they tried to follow our system. It was just rusty, and that was it. So it accomplished what we wanted to accomplish, but definitely we’ve got better in us.”

Captain Steven Stamkos was back on the ice. Wing Nikita Kucherov, out for at least the regular season following hip surgery, was missing. Brayden Point began feeling his way through filling Kucherov’s spot near the right circle on the top power-play unit.

“Just trying to bring a little bit of my game to that spot,” Point said. “It’s a little uncomfortable right now, but … hopefully just the more reps we get, the more comfortable we feel and hopefully it clicks.”

Lightning center Brayden Point (21)  and Jack Finley (62), on the ice during the Lightning's scrimmage Wednesday at TGH Ice Plex in Brandon.
Lightning center Brayden Point (21) and Jack Finley (62), on the ice during the Lightning's scrimmage Wednesday at TGH Ice Plex in Brandon. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Center Jack Finley, the Lightning’s top pick in October’s draft, is getting a week-long crash course in Lightning culture. At 6 feet 5, he already casts a tall shadow, and he started well by scoring the night’s first goal on a wrist shot from the left circle in the first period.

“I just try to fire it on the net quickly, and it went in the top corner,” said Finley, 18, “so it was good to get a goal early on for my confidence.”

Later in the game, Finley saw time on the same line as Stamkos and Point.

“It can be a little intimidating at times for some of these young guys,” Cooper said. “You just want these players, when they leave to be like, ‘Wow, I want to get back there.’ And anytime you can score in your first game, that’s a bonus. But for us, it’s all about development and putting these guys in a good spot not only physically, but in their head, and then watching them grow.”

A lot of younger players haven’t played much because of the pandemic. Finley’s junior-team league, the Western Hockey League, hasn’t resumed play, so he hasn’t played in a game since March. And while Finley spent time in Kelowna, British Columbia, training with several NHL players, including Lightning defenseman Luke Schenn, the pace of the game he saw in the scrimmage was a step up.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a competitive game like that, through the shutdown,” Finley said. “It was a little bit of adjustment at the start with the size and the speed of it, but it’s fun to win and play in the game.”

Quick hits

Defensemen Erik Cernak and Jan Rutta, who have been quarantining after immigration issues, are eligible to return Thursday. Cooper said both will be ready for the season opener. ... The Lightning partnered with the Panthers to offer use of their AHL affiliate in Syracuse after Florida’s affiliate in Charlotte opted out of the season. Since the teams play in the same division, it potentially sets up a scenario where players could be AHL teammates one day and NHL opponents the next. “It’s definitely an interesting dynamic,” said Lightning forward Boo Nieves, who is on a tryout contract with Tampa Bay. “But you know, all in all, it is professional hockey. Everybody’s playing for spots.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.

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