TAMPA — NHLers are skating around their local rinks for training camp and fans are buzzing about who will win this year’s Stanley Cup. Yes, after the shortest offseason ever, hockey is back.
Changes to the 2021 season were dictated by the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing a 56-game slate, intradivisional play and a postseason that ran into July. For 2021-22, a full 82-game regular season, league-wide play and special events like the All-Star Game are back.
Before the Lighting raise their second straight Cup banner on Oct. 12, here’s what fans should know about this season:
Training camp starts
The Lightning will kick off training camp at the TGH Ice Plex on Thursday. Unofficially, players have been skating together at the Brandon facility for the past few weeks.
The new (and old) faces to look out for at this year’s camp include forwards Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, defenseman Zach Bogosian, who won a Cup with Tampa Bay in 2020, and goaltender Brian Elliott.
Additionally, ex-Lightning defenseman Andrej Sustr, defenseman Darren Raddysh, ex-Lightning forward Gabriel Dumont, forwards Charles Hudon and Remi Elie, and goaltender Maxime Lagace were signed to one-year, two-way deals in the offseason.
Not the same old teams
The Lightning are back in their normal Atlantic Division following competition in last year’s realigned Central one. Teams will play each division opponent three or four times, other conference opponents three times and inter-conference teams twice.
By returning to this format, the league omits series-focused play where teams competed against each other in consecutive games to limit travel/exposure during the pandemic.
This year, the Lightning will play the same team two games in a row just once (against the Blues on Nov. 30 in St. Louis and Dec. 2 at Amalie Arena). Tampa Bay will play on back-to-back nights, however, 12 times.
With the addition of the expansion Seattle Kraken in the Western Conference, the league is moving the Arizona Coyotes out of the Pacific Division and into the Central.
Winter Olympics are on
The Winter Olympics are a go and for the first time since the 2014 event in Sochi, NHL players will be able to represent their home countries in the Beijing Games.
Jon Cooper will coach Team Canada and it’s possible the Lightning will have at least nine players (Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, Mikhail Sergachev, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Steven Stamkos, Erik Cernak and Ondrej Palat) competing.
McDonagh is the only Lightning player who has previously competed in the Olympics (representing Team USA in 2014).
Special events back on the calendar
The Lightning will play in their first outdoors game Feb. 26 against the Predators as part of the NHL’s Stadium Series. The teams will compete inside the Tennessee Titans’ Nissan Stadium in Nashville and the game will air on TNT.
The Lightning-Predators matchup is the second outdoor game of the season following the Jan. 1 Winter Classic at Target Field (home of the MLB’s Twins) in Minneapolis between the Blues and Minnesota.
The All-Star Game is scheduled for Feb. 4-5 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. If the Olympics continue as planned, players and coaches would fly straight from the All-Star weekend to Beijing.
Expect full capacity for opening night
When the Penguins come to Tampa for opening night, expect a loud crowd at Amalie Arena. For the first time since March 5, 2020, the Lightning can fill all 19,092 seats.
Last season during the pandemic, the Lightning were forced to shrink home capacity. When fans were first welcomed back March 13, Tampa Bay hosted 3,800. The number gradually increased to 4,200 on April 22 before expanding to 9,000 in the first round of the postseason against the Panthers. By the Stanley Cup final series against the Canadiens, Amalie Arena hosted 18,600.
Upcoming broadcast schedule
With ESPN becoming the new rights-holder for NHL games, the Lightning will have 13 games nationally televised this season between ESPN and TNT. All other games will remain on Bally Sports Sun.
The complete national schedule:
Oct. 12 vs. Pittsburgh, 7:30 p.m, ESPN
Nov. 30 at St. Louis, 8, ESPN+/Hulu
Dec. 28 vs. Montreal, 7, ESPN+/Hulu
Feb. 23 vs. Edmonton, 7:30, TNT
Feb. 26 at Nashville, 7:30, TNT (Stadium Series)
March 16 at Seattle, 10, TNT
March 19 at N.Y. Rangers, 8, ABC/ESPN+
March 27 at N.Y. Islanders, 2, TNT
March 29 vs. Carolina, 7, ESPN+/Hulu
April 6 at Washington, 7:30, TNT
April 12 at Dallas, 9:30, ESPN
April 21 vs. Toronto, 8, ESPN
April 28 at N.Y. Rangers, 7, ESPN+/Hulu
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