By DAMIAN CRISTODERO St. Petersburg Times Staff Writer
BRANDON — When it comes to a preseason road trip in which the Lightning will play four games in five nights, the final scores are just not that important, coach Guy Boucher said.
Not that he won’t be keeping track.
“Of course, we want to go into every game and win,” he said. “But the reality is we want to figure out who can play on our team and fill the roles that we need filled; guys who can be first on the puck and get us enough speed and grinding to wear the other teams down.”
The trip begins tonight against the Stars at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, moves to Winnipeg for Wednesday’s game against the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, Edmonton on Thursday against the Oilers and Calgary for Saturday’s finale against the Flames.
That’s a 5,405-mile round trip across three time zones to help reduce the 52 players in training camp (the regular-season maximum is 23) and better install the first-year coach’s system.
“They have the basic structure of it,” Boucher said Monday at the Ice Sports Forum. “But during games, on the bench, between periods, after the games, then video the next day, you accelerate the process of learning.”
Preseason travel is nothing new for Tampa Bay. The team last season played six games in seven nights in four time zones.
“We know how to deal with it,” goaltender Mike Smith said. “Eat right, sleep, get your rest, normal stuff. It’s a tougher start than we’d like, but we just have to deal with it.”
“You have to maintain, know what you have to do each day,” defenseman Brett Clark said. “Everyone is going to have to be prepared physically, mentally, whatever we have to do.”
There also is the chance for players to bond.
“We’re going to come together as a family,” Clark said. “Everyone is going to get to know everyone and get close real quick. This is only going to make us better in the long run.”
But Boucher said, “It’s tough to bond when half the players who are going to play (in preseason games) won’t be on our team.”
That’s why, for him, the trip is about X’s, O’s and evaluating players. It’s also about avoiding injuries, so even though the collective bargaining agreement allows players to play on three consecutive days in the preseason, Boucher said he will limit players to two.
“It’s not a win or lose situation for us,” he said. “The task we’re looking for is to get to a level that’s at least acceptable, that looks structured with everybody going in the same direction.”
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