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Florida Panthers at Tampa Bay Lightning preview: The season starts with a rivalry

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The Bolts and Cats start the season with a Battle of Florida

NHL: Florida Panthers at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Florida Panthers at Tampa Bay Lightning: GAME 1

Time: 7:00 pm Eastern Time

Location: Amalie Arena

Broadcast/Streaming: SunS, FSFL

Opponent SBNation Site: Litter Box Cats

Preview:

The season starts today for the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers. The two teams have different expectations but both want to be in the playoffs. The Lightning are aiming for the Cup. They’ve not been shy about embracing that challenge. The Panthers want to recover from back-to-back disappointing years after making the playoffs in 2016 before being upset by the New York Islanders. Fans on both sides have been clamoring for a playoff series between the two teams and that seems like a real possibility this year.

This game follows three consecutive meetings between the teams to close the preseason. Things got a little tense at times with both teams suffering injuries that could impact their opening rosters tonight. With the last game coming nearly a week ago, that should be plenty of time for for any lingering animosity to dissipate. But if the game gets physical early, that could reignite some of the frustration from the previous three games.

Tonight will be the first chance to see at least one new member of the Lightning play a full speed regular season NHL game. Forward Mathieu Joseph will make his debut tonight after emphatically staking his claim to a roster spot during training camp. His performance was so strong that he’s been skating on the third line in practice this week ahead of Adam Erne. Joseph is a more natural fit on the right wing than Erne but Erne has played there in the past so that’s an indication of how the coaches feel about Joseph’s place on the team.

Whether he plays there during the game or slides back to the fourth line depends on the health of Tyler Johnson. Johnson was recently upgraded from doubtful to questionable and has been cleared for contact. If the team wants to play it safe, they could hold him out of the game tonight. This is only the first game of the season and the Lightning don’t play again until Thursday so if they have any concerns about Johnson’s risk of reinjury, they could give him the five extra days of rest while only missing one game.

If Johnson doesn’t play, that could open another spot in the lineup for a newcomer. The most likely candidates to play on the right wing on the fourth line would be Cory Conacher and Danick Martel. Based on the lines in practice, it seems like Conacher has a better shot but the team might want to see Martel in NHL minutes so that they know what they have before Ryan Callahan returns next month.

The biggest changes the Lightning made this season were behind the bench. Long time defensive coach Rick Bowness is no longer with the team. Instead, Todd Richards takes over his role. Jeff Halpern joined the team from Syracuse to fill Richards’ previous position working with the forwards and the power play. Jon Cooper is still the head coach so don’t expect major structural changes but Bowness preached a conservative collapsing defensive style particularly on the penalty kill. Tonight will be the first chance to get a clear look at what changes, if any, the coaches have made during camp.

The biggest change for the Panthers this season is the addition of Mike Hoffman who they acquired cheaply from the Ottawa Senators via San Jose primarily because he seems to be a not-so-great person or at the very least, has no problem being in a relationship with a not-so-great person. His offensive contributions will be welcome on the ice in Sunrise but it’s hard to muster much excitement for a player involved in such a gross instance of cyber harassment.

The most important factor this season for the Panthers might be the health of the legend Roberto Luongo. Bobby Lu was still one of the best goalies in the league last year when he played. But he only played 35 games. If he can get that number up into the mid to high forties and sustain his level of play at age 39, the Panthers have a real chance to make some noise this year.

The summer is over. The preseason is over. Real hockey is here. For Lightning fans, this season will inevitably feel like a prelude to what happens in the spring. Saying otherwise would be denial. But we’ll get moments between now and then that shape how we feel about the team in March. The first opportunity for one of those moments is tonight.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Forward Lines

J.T. Miller - Steven Stamkos - Nikita Kucherov

Ondrej Palat - Brayden Point - Yanni Gourde

Alex Killorn - Anthony Cirelli - Mathieu Joseph

Adam Erne - Cedric Paquette - Cory Conacher

Tyler Johnson (injured) - Danick Martel

Defense Pairings

Victor Hedman - Dan Girardi

Ryan McDonagh - Anton Stralman

Braydon Coburn - Mikhail Sergachev

Goaltenders

Andrei Vasilevskiy

Louis Domingue

Opponent lines

Forward Lines

Evgeny Dadonov - Aleksander Barkov - Nick Bjugstad

Jonathan Huberdeau - Vincent Trocheck - Mike Hoffman

Frank Vatrano - Jared McCann - Denis Malgin

Troy Brouwer - Derek Mackenzie - Colton Sceviour

Defense Pairings

Keith Yandle - Aaron Ekblad

Mike Matheson - Mark Psysyk

Mackenzie Weegar - Alex Petrovic

Goalies

Roberto Luongo

James Reimer