Heading into Friday night’s preseason showdown with the Nashville Predators, the Tampa Bay Lightning dressed many of their big name veterans and stars. Steven Stamkos, Ryan Callahan, Nikita Kucherov, and Chris Kunitz were among those making their preseason debuts. Stamkos and Callahan looked like they had never been injured, while Andrei Vasilevskiy was in mid-season form at Amalie Arena.
Vasilevskiy turned aside 29 of 30 shots, losing a shutout bid with 5:55 remaining as the Lightning (2-1-0 preseason) defeated the Predators 3-1 (1-2-0 preseason). Throughout the contest, his play was sensational, turning aside multiple Nashville breakaways and odd-man rushes.
He played as if he were in a mid-season game in January or in a playoff game, not a preseason contest. Any of those chances could’ve shifted the tide of the game, however Vasilevskiy was up to the task time and time again. His play didn’t go unnoticed by Lightning head coach Jon Cooper.
“We could’ve had the first assist on goals at both ends of the rink. I thought he was sharp. He was on every puck. The one that went in, no chance on that one. There was a bunch early on in that game that could’ve gone in, but he saved our bacon a little bit,” Cooper said.
“He was tracking pucks, he was seeing through screens. I thought he was exceptional.”
Following a dominant opening period, the Lightning needed a performance like that from Vasilevskiy, as there were some issues with turnovers.
Much is made about preseason and how the games don’t count in the standings. Don’t tell that to Stamkos or Callahan.
After missing 65 and 64 games, respectively, Stamkos and Callahan showed no ill effects from the injuries that ended their 2016-17 season. The 32-year-old Callahan made his presence known all over the ice, looking like a guy seven years younger. He killed penalties, dove to block shots, and forechecked ferociously. In addition, he served up a beautiful centering feed to Yanni Gourde for a goal in the third period, putting the Bolts up 3-0.
It took Stamkos even less time to make his mark. Centering a line between Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, the Lightning captain took a pass from Kucherov in the Predators’ zone in the opening minute of the game. He promptly served up a dazzling behind-the-back pass to Victor Hedman. The towering Bolts defenseman fired it home to put Tampa Bay up 1-0.
About 15 minutes later during a 5-on-3 power play, Stamkos tallied his second assist when he set up Kucherov for a blistering one-timer from the right circle that put the Bolts ahead 2-0 before the first intermission.
“It’s a good start to the night, gives you some confidence right away, calms you down a little bit,” said Stamkos.
Throughout the evening, Stamkos, Kucherov, and Point looked like they had been playing together for years. Their creativity, passing, chemistry, and anticipation were off the charts. A very good sign for the Lightning and a bad sign for the rest of the league.
Although many familiar names like Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Alex Killorn suited up and played well, plenty of youngsters got extended looks.
Highly-touted defensive prospect Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak formed the middle defensive pairing and didn’t look out of place at all. They each killed penalties, with Cernak showing a knack for shot-blocking and good decision-making. Sergachev continued to do all the little things right, such as creating turnovers, knowing when to jump into the play and when to back off, and earning quality power play time as well. Center Matthew Peca dominated in the faceoff circle, winning nine out of 10 draws. Like Brayden Point in 2016, Peca is going to make the final roster decisions difficult for Cooper.
Much of the talk across the NHL since the start of training camps is focusing on the league-wide crackdown on slashing penalties.
During this game, the Lightning and Predators combined for seven slashing penalties. Each team took back-to-back slashing calls in the opening period. Tampa Bay made Nashville pay for their mistakes with Kucherov’s 5-on-3 power play goal. This is something the entire league will need to adjust to this season. Cooper didn’t mince words when asked about it after the game.
“I don’t even know what the slashing rule is anymore. It’s like an area pass. Stick comes in the area. It might get called, it might not. I think it’s a work in progress for everybody.
Three Stars Of The Game
1st Star: Andrei Vasilevskiy – Finished with 29 saves, many of the exceptional variety, while finding himself 5:55 away from a shutout.
2nd Star: Steven Stamkos – Playing in his first game in 10 months, he finished the night with two assists.
3rd Star: Matthew Peca – Centering the fourth line, he continues to make a case for this roster, winning nine of 10 faceoffs.
The Lightning host the Florida Panthers at Amalie Arena on Sunday afternoon at 4 pm. The game will not be televised on TV.