Preview: Lightning, Panthers kick off 2017-18 season with intrastate showdown

TIME: Pregame coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. on FOX Sports Sun/7:30 p.m. on FOX Sports Florida

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TAMPA, Fla. — Both the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers missed the playoffs last season after making them the year before, and as they open the 2017-18 season Friday with a home-and-home series, there’s excitement about getting back to the postseason.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper, whose team missed a wild card by a single point in the Eastern Conference standings, said the two nights he always looks forward to are the first night of the regular season and, hopefully, the first night of the playoffs.

“The excitement in the building, the excitement of the players, the atmosphere. They’re the two nights I look forward to most,” he said. “In both instances, everybody’s equal. The light shines bright for everybody and that’s the one night that can happen.”

The Lightning, who went 42-30-10 last season, start their optimism with the healthy return of center Steven Stamkos, who was limited to 17 games last season. Andrei Vasilevskiy opens the season as a No. 1 goalie for the first time, taking over that role after Ben Bishop was traded away last season.

In Stamkos’ absence, Nikita Kucherov led the team with 40 goals and 85 points, with defenseman Victor Hedman leading the team with 56 assists and continuing to establish himself as one of the league’s top defenders. The team’s No. 3 scorer, Jonathan Drouin, was traded away, but the rest of the scoring nucleus remains intact.

Tampa Bay added two veterans from winning programs, signing 38-year-old winger Chris Kunitz from the Pittsburgh Penguins and 33-year-old defenseman Dan Girardi from the New York Rangers.

Florida has had more change, with longtime leader Jaromir Jagr gone and former San Jose Sharks assistant Bob Boughner in his first season as head coach.

“I told the guys we have great character, we have great players. It’s just a matter of taking it upon ourselves: Why not us?” Boughner said, inheriting a team that went 35-36-11 and finished 13 points behind the Lightning in the standings.

Florida still has experienced leaders like goalie Roberto Luongo, now 38, and young leaders like 21-year-old defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who is entering his fourth NHL season.

“I feel very confident that our team is on the same page, more so than we have been before,” Ekblad said. “If we all buy in, we’re not going to be good. We’re going to be great.”

Tampa Bay won the season series by a 2-1-1 margin last season, and the teams meet on back-to-back nights to open the campaign, first in Tampa on Friday and at the Panthers on Saturday. They meet a third time Oct. 30, then not again until March 6 in Tampa.

Two years ago, the Panthers and Lightning finished 1-2 in the Atlantic, with the Lightning making it all the way to the Eastern Conference finals. Both teams want 2017-18 to be more like that year instead of last season, and the pursuit of getting back to that starts Friday night at Amalie Arena.