TAMPA — During the Lightning’s run to back-to-back Stanley Cups the past two seasons, they had essentially the same group on the ice. But this season, fans should get used to some new faces and new looks as the winning core remains intact.
With the regular-season opener tonight at Amalie Arena against the Penguins, here’s what’s different and what’s the same about the Lightning.
Different: Colton will play an instrumental role
Ross Colton provided one of the biggest moments of the last postseason, scoring the decisive goal in the Lightning’s Cup- clinching win over Montreal, but overall he played more of a supplementary role as a rookie forward. His knack for delivering in big moments, as well as a skill set that makes him a presence at both ends of the ice, will earn him a bigger role this season. He will center the rebuilt third line, which will be asked to provide grit and goals. He’ll likely have veteran Corey Perry to one side and Steven Stamkos or Mathieu Joseph on the other.
Same: Power-play unit is just as dynamic as last postseason
There has been turnover, but the top power-play unit returns intact. After watching the unit convert on 32.4 percent of its opportunities in the last postseason, defenses have to pick their poison against it. The second unit has bite as well. Add Perry, who is the ultimate power-play pest, and the Lightning have reason to be optimistic about their power play again this season.
Different: A retooled penalty kill that could rely on depth
After losing three of their top four penalty-killing forwards from a unit that ranked fourth in the league in the last regular season and playoffs, the Lightning will have new faces on the penalty kill. Joseph and newcomer Pierre-Edouard Bellemare likely will take Blake Coleman’s and Barclay Goodrow’s spots as the top penalty-killing forwards. Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn are likely to form the No. 2 forward pair. Colton and rookies Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk also could also see time on the penalty kill.
Same: A banner night to remember for the opener
The 2021 Stanley Cup championship banner will be raised before Tuesday night’s game. Fans at Amalie Arena should be in their seats no later than 7:30, and those at home will want to be tuned in to ESPN for the game broadcast. There also will be a banner for the Eastern Conference championship. To make room for the new ones, the organization removed both Atlantic Division (2017-18 and 2018-19) and Southeast Division (2002-03 and 2003-04) championship banners.
Different: A full season of Kucherov
The Lightning will have something they didn’t for the regular season in 2021: top scorer Nikita Kucherov. Kucherov was placed on the long-term injured reserve list following offseason hip surgery but returned to dominate the postseason. Kucherov can do things on the ice few can. His vision and anticipation make him one of the best in the game. Most important, he makes the players around him better.
Same: Consistency on the blue line
The Lightning return five of their top six defensemen, including their top two pairings. Victor Hedman is healthy again after battling through a knee injury the final few months of last season. Expect big things from the Ryan McDonagh- Erik Cernak pair. Mikhail Sergachev and Zach Bogosian, who returned to the Lightning in free agency after a year in Toronto, complement each other well and should bring physicality. Provided the defense stays healthy, the Lightning again should have one of the top corps in the league.
Different: Lightning will rely on youth
Salary-cap restraints prevented the Lightning from playing a big role in the free-agent market, and general manager Julien BriseBois made it clear in the offseason that they would fill most of their voids internally. Though it has been tough for younger players to crack the lineup because it has been veteran heavy, Tampa Bay has two rookies — forwards Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk — on its opening-night roster. Both impressed the coaching staff and front office in the preseason after learning the Lightning system while playing at AHL Syracuse. The 23-year-olds likely will see limited minutes on a bottom line but could see special-teams opportunities.
Same: First line is one of the most dangerous in the league
Though there will be more forward-line tweaking than there has been the past few seasons, the top line remains the same. Few combinations in the league have the synergy that Kucherov and Brayden Point possess, and defenses can’t prepare for the chemistry they have on the ice. Ondrej Palat is the perfect complementary piece, a physical forward who battles for the puck and can score. Palat was the Lightning’s second-leading scorer in the last regular season.
Different: A full arena with fans in the stands
Expect 19,092 fans in the Amalie Arena stands tonight, a sellout. For the first time since March 3, 2020, Amalie Arena will have a full house. Last season, the Lightning operated under restricted fan capacity, with 3,800 allowed starting with the March 3 contest against the Predators. By the start of the postseason, 7,000 were allowed for the first-round series against the Panthers. At the end of the postseason, 14,800 were in the building for the Cup final against Montreal.
Same: The Lightning will go as far as Vasilevskiy takes them
No. 88 still amazes with the way he can take over a game. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP last season. He has played a lot of hockey over the past year and is going to play some high-intensity games for Russia in the Olympics in February. So how the Lightning manage Vasilevskiy’s workload is one of the most important things to watch. He knows his body better than anyone, and it’s hard to argue with the way he positioned himself the past two regular seasons to reach his peak in the postseason.
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