Anton Stralman is familiar with Amalie Arena. For five seasons, he called the downtown Tampa arena his home as a member of the perennial playoff-contending Tampa Bay Lightning.
Stralman, a 33-year-old defenseman entering his 12th NHL season, is be back at Amalie for Thursday’s season opener. This time, though, he’s here as a member of the visiting Florida Panthers, who are once again trying to break through and become contenders to win their first Stanley Cup.
Stralman came close to making it with the Lightning, reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 2015 and the conference finals in both 2016 and 2018.
So, from the eyes of a former Lightning player, what will it take to beat Tampa Bay?
“They like playing with speed and hurt you when you make mistakes,” Stralman said. “That’s going to be the key, how we manage our puck because if we’re slow and turnovers impact the game, it’s going to be a long night.”
The Panthers, who have struggled to win games early in the season for the better part of the past decade, are hoping to avoid that fate this year — their first under three-time Stanley Cup winning coach Joel Quenneville.
And they already sense the importance of a strong start.
“The first game of the season feels like a playoff game,” said Aleksander Barkov, entering his second season as the Panthers’ captain.
And if the Panthers’ and Lightning’s seasons play out the way they hope, this very well might be a precursor of what’s to come when the postseason arrives.
The Lightning is coming off a 62-win season that ended in a stunning first-round playoff exit.
The Panthers, with probably their most stacked roster in recent memory led by Barkov up top and goalie Sergei Bobrovski in the net, have their eyes set on reaching the postseason for just the third time this decade and winning a playoff series for the first time since making it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996.
“Everybody’s ready,” Barkov said. “It’s everybody’s first game. Everybody’s excited. It’s going to be fast-paced game with a lot of skill. The hardest working team is going to win.”
The teams became familiar with each other as of late, playing three games to close out their preseason schedules. The Panthers took two of three — a 6-3 win at the BB&T Center on Sept. 24 and a 1-0 shootout victory on Saturday in Tampa with a 4-2 home loss mixed in on Sept. 26.
But now, the games count.
“We’re all looking forward to getting started here,” Quenneville said. “As camp progressed, we got a lot more familiar with our team and we’re getting a lot more familiar with Tampa as well. It’s an opportunity to start fresh and have a great game right off the bat.”
Opening night debut
Five Panthers are on the opening night roster for the first time in their NHL career: Forwards Jayce Hawryluk, Henrik Borgstrom, and Dryden Hunt; defenseman Josh Brown; and goalie Sam Montembeault.
Hawryluk, however, will have to wait to make his season debut. He and defenseman Mark Pysyk are scratches for the Panthers’ Opening Night lineup.