by Leah Mize
After a shocking first round playoff exit against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Tampa Bay Lightning have much to prove moving forward into the 2019-2020 season and their 5-2 win on opening night over the Florida Panthers could be the start of a much-anticipated season of redemption.
The first goal of the season was scored by 2019 Hart trophy winner, Nikita Kucherov, at Amalie Arena.
Off-season additions, Pat Maroon and Kevin Shattenkirk, also scored their first goals as members of the Lightning. Veteran Ondrej Palat scored the game-tying goal and Erik Cernak scored an empty net goal late in the third period to ensure a win.
The Lightning weren’t just the winners of the game in terms of points; they also made improvements to the weaknesses in their game. Taking too many penalties was an issue they struggled with in the preseason. They took four penalties total over the course of the game, which is a reduction from the number of penalties they typically receive.
The visiting Panthers outshot the Lightning 37-30, which forced goaltender and defending Vezina trophy winner, Andrei Vasilevskiy, to face too many shots.
Despite these issues, their win on Thursday, Oct. 3 was decisive and many analysts from publications such as NBC Sports and NHL.com have selected the Lightning to win the Stanley Cup in June.
Signing Maroon and Shattenkirk to contracts worth $900,000 and $1.75 million respectively weren’t the only moves the Lightning made in the off-season. They also signed goaltender, Curtis McElhinney, to a two year contract worth $2.6 million and drafted Nolan Foote in the first round of the NHL Draft to add to their prospect pool.
At the NHL Awards, Kucherov also won the Ted Lindsay trophy and the Art Ross trophy, awarded to the league’s most valuable players as voted on by the NHL Player’s Association and the player who scores the most points over the course of the season respectively.
Looking forward, the Atlantic division is stacked this year as the Lightning have to contend with the Boston Bruins who are coming off a trip to the Stanley Cup finals, the Toronto Maple Leafs who will be looking to capitalize on their short window to lift the cup, and the re-tooled Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres who will be looking to clinch a wild card position to end their respective playoff droughts.
“There is such closeness across the leagues in terms of where teams are with each other,” said Brian Breseman, senior director for broadcasting, programming, and communications at Amalie Arena. “The goal at this point just has to be making the playoffs.”
Their last trip to the Stanley Cup Finals was in 2015 in which they lost in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks, which was their third cup win in five years.
Adding depth to the net, blue line, and left wing is a smart move for the Lightning, according to Meghan Rodgers, a University of Tampa senior public relations major.
“A hockey team can’t win with just three or four stars,” said Rodgers. “They need depth behind them to support the team.”
Notable off-season departures include, J.T. Miller whom they traded to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for a conditional first round pick in 2020, Anton Strålman who left in free agency to join the Florida Panthers, and Ryan Callahan who was traded to the Ottawa Senators and placed on long-term injury reserve.
Recently re-signed, Brayden Point, is recovering from hip surgery and is expected to return to the lineup soon according to CBS Sports.
While there is a lot of hockey to be played from now until April, Lightning fans should be encouraged by their opening night performance. It showed growth, which is what the franchise desperately needs in order to move past their post-season collapse.
Leah Mize can be reached at email@example.com