The return of the NHL is indeed close and the temperature will be raised tonight when the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers renew their rivalry in Sunrise.
Sure, this first of two exhibitions to close out the preseason has nothing on the last time these two met when the Lightning ended Florida’s season with a 2-0 win in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in Tampa.
That sweep at the hands of what was then the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions led to a lot of changes in Pantherland during the offseason.
Not only was interim coach Andrew Brunette replaced by Paul Maurice but the Panthers also made myriad changes on the ice as well.
Some of the moves Florida made were due to their lack of salary cap space as Claude Giroux, Mason Marchment, Ben Chiarot and Noel Acciari all left as free agents.
But the biggest offseason move involved one of the largest trades in recent NHL history as Florida traded away all-time leading scorer Jonathan Huberdeau and top-pair defenseman MacKenzie Weegar to Calgary in exchange for Matthew Tkachuk.
By missing the past two practices with what is believed to be a minor injury, Tkachuk is not expected to get his first taste of the Lightning tonight and perhaps will not play in Saturday’s preseason finale in Tampa.
Which is a shame considering his comments in his introductory press conference in which he said he continued to dislike the Edmonton Oilers from his days with the Flames, “but now I hate Tampa more.”
He will just have to wait until these two meet for real in a couple of weeks at FLA Live Arena on Oct. 21.
“Coach said he wanted us to look at these as regular season games,” said forward Rudolfs Balcers, who joins the Panthers from San Jose. “They will have almost all of their guys and we will have ours. …
“They are obviously a great team. I played against them before and they are one of the best teams in the league. I’m sure there is some heat on the ice between the two clubs and it will be fun.”
Aside from Tkachuk, the Panthers are also expecting to be without Patric Hornqvist (who returned to practice on Wednesday after missing a week) and Colin White. Carter Verhaeghe is not expected to play tonight.
With a number of players still battling for a roster spot, these next two games will be of some importance even if the stats nor the final score do not count toward anything.
“Any of our veterans who are healthy will play,” Maurice said. “We will keep anyone who is close — Verhaeghe skated today but we will hold him until the Saturday game. We’re being a little cautious with the guys who are nicked up a little but the rest will play.
“This is closer to a regular season game although it’s not quite the same. I think it’s a good way to test where you at to Opening Night. Because of the rivalry, those rivalries are pretty close. Both teams are rested and will come out hard.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS PRESEASON
Tampa Bay Lightning at Florida Panthers
Where, When: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise; Tonight, 7 p.m.
Tickets: CLICK HERE
2022 Preseason — Sept. 26: Florida 4, @Nashville 3 (OT); @Nashville 4, Florida 0. Sept. 29: Carolina 5, @Florida 2. Oct. 1: @Carolina 4, Florida 3. Tonight: vs. Tampa Bay, 7 p.m. Saturday: at Tampa Bay, 4 p.m
Regular Season Opener: Oct. 13 at New York Islanders