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And so it begins; Tampa Bay Lightning versus Florida Panthers preview

Changes, expectations... They are what sets the stage for a new season of Lightning hockey.

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Steven Stamkos will have Tyler Johnson playing on the right wing on a line he centers tonight.
Steven Stamkos will have Tyler Johnson playing on the right wing on a line he centers tonight.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Where:  Amalie Arena, Tampa, Florida
When: 7:30 PM EDT | Tickets: Check availability
Media: Sun Sports (cable) | 970 AM WFLA (radio) | Twitter Live Stream
Opponent Coverage: Litter Box Cats

For the past month or so, it's been practice. The games have simply been exhibits and teases of what's to come. The Tampa Bay Lightning completed a strong preseason with a 5-1-0 record. Nikita Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov were both dominant and led the team in scoring.

Wipe that away, though. It happened. It's over and done with, moot, and it didn't count beyond constructing the current roster. No one wins prizes for doing well in practice, and it will not factor toward the standings or a playoff berth in April. It did further boost the high expectations of the 2014-2015 Lightning season ahead - speculation has them triumphing in the Atlantic Division and rising above the pack in the Eastern Conference to secure a 2015 Stanley Cup Finals berth...

Yeah, well, we got 82 games to play and expectations by hockey punditry, columnists, beat writers, bloggers and fans doesn't play those games. On paper, Tampa Bay is a legit contender.

Now it's time to prove it. And it won't be proven until a much later date than tonight during the season opener at the Amalie against the Florida Panthers.

It's worth noting that for the third year in a row, the Tampa Bay Lightning will take to the ice with a different team captain; Vincent Lecavalier had reigned up until the summer of 2013, Martin St. Louis was bestowed the captaincy until his defection last March, and now it's 24 year old Steven Stamkos' turn at the helm to guide the club through the storm of the NHL season. That really might not mean much -- third captaincy in three years - with how things have been laid out, and how Stamkos has veteran voices to converse with and help (Brenden Morrow, Eric Brewer and Ryan Callahan). Yet it's a sign of the winds of change that has swept over this franchise during the past four years, with final remnants (Ryan Malone, Teddy Purcell and Nate Thompson) being removed from the roster over the summer' the last long-time holdovers from the club are gone.

This is Stamkos' team, by way of Jon Cooper through Steve Yzerman, with the blessings of one Jeffrey Vinik. What this team is capable of doing is a sight that we'll fall witness to in the days ahead.

Editorializing aside, the story tonight is the fact this is the third game in a row against the Florida Panthers.  No, I don't mean dating back to last season, I mean literally the Lightning and Cats have played two consecutive games already (preseason though) and this will be the third. Like any back-to-back series, this gives the game the potential to get dicey and chippy in a traditional rival fashion. I don't think it's necessary for me to remind everyone the Lightning/Panthers rivalry in recent years has been anything but - there's no animosity or pride at stake in these games, and even the pretentious Governor's Cup seems like an empty trophy.  Maybe that'll change this season?  Maybe not?

The line combos for the Lightning this morning looked like thus:

Ondrej Palat - Stamkos - Tyler Johnson
Alex Killorn - Valtteri Filppula - Ryan Callahan
Brenden Morrow - Brian Boyle - J.T. Brown
Nikita Kucherov - Vladislav Namestnikov - Brett Connolly

So Morrow is a go tonight, eh?  Even if RW Richard Panik passes through waivers, it doesn't necessitate he be sent down immediately unless Morrow is taken off injured reserve. That also hinges on Panik not being claimed off waivers. We'll find out on that one (the waiver situation) at Noon ET.

This should be a duel of the #1 goalies.  As of this writing, starters haven't been confirmed but here's no reason to suggest we won't see Roberto Luongo in net for the Panthers and Ben Bishop minding the crease for Tampa Bay.

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