Veteran Acquisitions Help Lead Lightning To Win In Season Opener

Nikita Kucherov celebrates with the bench after scoring against the Florida Panthers during the first period of Thursday night’s game at Amalie Arena. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

TAMPA — Lightning fans were not allowed to forget about how last season ended. Not with the conclusion to Game 4 of their team’s opening-round sweep against Columbus playing on the jumbotron at Amalie Arena.

The message was, sure, the way last season concluded was a major disappointment. However, the NHL calendar has flipped to the start of the 2019-20 season and the Lightning are ready to get down to business.

Or, is it unfinished business?

Indeed, it did not take long for the faithful to have something to cheer about in Thursday night’s opener, a 5-2 victory against the Panthers.

Nikita Kucherov’s goal on a delayed penalty, a rifle from the right-wing circle over Sergei Bobrovsky’s — yes, that Sergei Bobrovsky — right shoulder at 6:39 of the opening period resulted in an early lead and Kooooch resonating throughout the arena.

Yes, it is good to see the Lightning back on the ice once again and the arena energized. The atmosphere made quite an impression one of the newest team members, veteran forward Patrick Maroon.

“This place is electric,” said Maroon, who made his Lightning debut extra memorable by scoring at 13:51 of the third period to provide some breathing room at 4-2. “I played against this team here in the playoffs when I was with New Jersey. The building just rocks every night. Even in the regular season this building rocks. This is a really good fan base and I am looking forward to playing in front of these fans every night.”

Kevin Shattenkirk, another veteran addition, officially introduced himself to the home crowd when one second after a Lightning powerplay expired he wristed a seeing-eye knuckler through traffic, over Bobrovsky and under the crossbar. The goal allowed Tampa Bay to take a 2-1 lead with 9:32 remaining in the middle period.

“It was unbelievable,” said Shattenkirk of the excitement in the building. “Those fans were rocking and even after they tied it (at 2-2) in the third, we did a good job of staying positive. The crowd doesn’t get down here. They are right there to pick you up after moments like that. That’s huge.”

It was huge how the Lightning responded to the goal Shattenkirk referenced. The Panthers drew even at 2-2 on a shorthanded tally by Vincent Trocheck at 8:49 of the third period. Tampa Bay came right back and took the lead for good on Ondrej Palat’s goal 45 seconds later while still on the man advantage.

Maroon provided the insurance and Erik Cernak had an empty-net goal with 46 second remaining.

There was a lot of back-and-forth play throughout. The Panthers had the shots-on-goal advantage, 37-30, and the Lightning committed a few turnovers leading to odd-man rushes.

But, hey, it the first game and two points is two points.

“It was game one and there was a lot in the game I liked and we also got bit by the turnover bug and gave up a two-on-one and a three-on-one,” said coach Jon Cooper. “Things that are in our control not to give up, we did. But as a whole, could we be better as a team? There’s no question, but it’s game one. I look at the big picture. We came here to get two points.”

In so doing the Lightning made it four straight seasons opening with a victory over the Panthers.

Next up are these same Panthers on Saturday night in Sunrise.

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Tom Layberger has been a sports writer, reporter and editor since 1990. Among the companies he has worked for are Comcast, NBC and The Topps Company. In addition to being a contributing writer for sportstalkflorida.com, Tom also writes for forbes.com and globalsportmatters.com. A native of the Philadelphia suburbs and a USF grad, Tom is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and the National Football Foundation. He resides in Tampa.