Panthers, Lightning to end long wait for opener

TAMPA, Fla. — As the rest of the NHL opened play earlier this week, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers practiced. And practiced. And practiced some more.

But finally the last two teams yet to begin their season — at least in North America (Edmonton and New Jersey open in Sweden) — drop the puck Saturday at Amalie Arena.

“You get a little jealous of watching the games,” Florida coach Bob Boughner told the team website. “You wish you could not only play one early but play the next one right after. But we’ve had some time here that has allowed us to fine-tune some things here, have some good meetings and have some good practices.”

Both Tampa Bay and Florida enter the season with high expectations, though for completely different reasons.

The Lightning are coming off a loss in the Eastern Conference finals to the Washington Capitals, blowing a 3-2 series lead. It marked the second time in three years that Tampa Bay fell in seven games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion in the conference finals.

Tampa Bay no longer wants to be seen as a bridesmaid catching the bouquet at the reception. The Lightning want to be holding the prize at the center of the dance floor when the music stops.

“It’s a process on how we are going to get there,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “But it’s a hard thing (to get there) and this group has done it year after year. Call it unfinished business.

“You don’t know how long that is going to last, but you just have to keep trusting the process in getting there. Look no further than the Washington Capitals, where it was setback after setback after setback and now a lot of those guys that went through a lot of those years got to realize their dreams.

“We’re no different, it’s just our setback happened a little later in the playoffs. But there is a reason we keep getting that far and it’s because we have a great group in there and you can see the look in their eyes. Guys are looking forward to getting going.”

The Panthers, on the other hand, are looking to get into the playoffs for the second time in four seasons after coming up just short last season. A late-season charge fell just a point short as Florida finished with 96 points — tied for the most points for a team that missed the postseason.

After coming so close, the Panthers feel primed to be inside the playoff picture rather than on the outside.

“Hopefully, the guys use that bad taste in their mouth from last year, being so close,” Boughner said. “We played with pride, but that can be a powerful motivator for this season.”

Tampa Bay will start the season without veteran forward Ryan Callahan, who remains out after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery but is on track to return “in the coming weeks,” according to Cooper. Center Tyler Johnson is considered questionable after missing the final two weeks of training camp with an undisclosed upper-body injury.

Both Callahan and Johnson have been practicing with the team.