Captain Steven Stamkos makes his first regular-season appearance in almost 11 months when the Tampa Bay Lightning host the Florida Panthers on Friday night in the 2017-18 opener for both teams. The two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner as the NHL’s top goal scorer put up 20 points in 16-plus games before suffering a knee injury Nov. 15 at Detroit, and is determined to lead the Lightning back to the playoffs after they came up one point short last season.
Stamkos is joined by a healthy Ryan Callahan, who missed all but 18 games last season because of a hip injury, and Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman with an experienced group that fell victim to a slow start in 2016-17 after two long playoff runs. “You can’t take half of the year off,” Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman told reporters. “I don’t think that sunk in to some of our guys and how bad a spot we put ourselves in. We learned our lesson.” The Panthers, who host the Lightning on Saturday, also come in off a rough season with injuries that saw them tumble from 2015-16 Atlantic Division champions to sixth place one year later. Five of Florida’s top eight scorers are gone, including future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr, but first-year coach Bob Boughner said he hopes the return to health of several players such as defenseman Aaron Ekblad can lead to a revival: “The players are buying into the systems,’’ the coach told reporters. “And when they see results, it’s an easier sell for us.”
TV: 7:30 p.m. ET, FSN Florida, FSN Sun (Tampa Bay)
ABOUT THE PANTHERS (2016-17: 35-26-11, sixth in Atlantic): Ekblad, who was hampered by concussions last season, finished with 21 points and a minus-23 rating in 68 games after averaging 37.5 points and a plus-15 in his first two NHL campaigns. Center Aleksander Barkov was second on the team with 52 points despite missing 20 games in 2016-17 while wing Jonathan Huberdeau (26 points) was limited to 31 contests by injury and center Nick Bjugstad played in only 54 games. Top scorer Vincent Trocheck (23 goals, 54 points) returns to center one of the top two lines and the Panthers are solid in goal with Roberto Luongo and James Reimer, who are likely to split the first two games.
ABOUT THE LIGHTNING (2016-2017: 42-30-10, fifth in Atlantic): Mikhail Sergachev, a 19-year-old defenseman acquired in the blockbuster offseason deal with Montreal for offensive dynamo Jonathan Drouin, is expected to make his Tampa Bay debut after a strong preseason. Sergachev has been skating with Stralman while newcomer Daniel Girardi was paired with veteran Braydon Coburn and Hedman with Jake Dotchin in last few practices. Chris Kunitz is the only addition to the forward corps that is led by a line that includes Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, who put up 40 goals and 85 points last season, while Brayden Point along with Tyler Johnson center the next two units.
1. Luongo, who is 18-15-1 against the Lightning, owns 453 victories and needs one to tie Curtis Joseph for fourth on the NHL’s all-time list.
2. Tampa Bay LW Alex Killorn had 16 goals over his first 54 games last season and three in his final 27 while finishing third on the team in shots (176).
3. The teams split four games last season, with each winning a pair at home, but the Panthers are 6-2-1 over the last nine meetings.
PREDICTION: Lightning 4, Panthers 2