Thursday, November 30 2023

TAMPA — For many players in the Lightning’s training camp, Saturday’s exhibition game against the Predators was their last chance to leave an impression on the NHL staff. With training camp at AHL Syracuse set to open Tuesday, many prospects would play their last preseason game before heading north.

The game at Amalie Arena also was the first preseason action for many of the Lightning’s veterans. Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Mikhail Sergachev played.

Tampa Bay entered the third period down a goal but scored three times — getting two goals from prospect Waltteri Merela — for a 5-4 comeback win.

After Merela’s first goal tied the score at 3, Kucherov’s one-timer from the right circle on a power play put Tampa Bay ahead 4-3. Merela’s second goal with 6:07 remaining ended up being the winner.

After the game, the Lightning trimmed their roster from 56 to 26 ahead of Tuesday’s exhibition against the Panthers in Orlando, the first of three meetings between the teams to round out the preseason schedule leading into the season opener Oct. 10 at home against the Predators.

“The first half of camp is more about the young guys, and the last half camp is about your team,” Jon Cooper said. “So now, in this last week or so, we have to jell as a team.

“Half our team may have played (Saturday), and half our team played the night before (against the Hurricanes), and now it’s putting those groups together and finding that chemistry.”

Here are three takeaways from Saturday’s win:

Merela made a strong impression

Merela, 25, knows the NHL is much different from the top league in his native Finland.

“I was like, yeah, this is crazy for the preseason games,” the forward said. “We don’t have that in Finland. People show up in the playoffs. It’s an awesome hockey town, for sure, and I think it’s going to get even better, so hopefully this isn’t my last game here.”

Merela, who survived the postgame camp cuts, stood out on the stat sheet with a three-point night. He is an aggressive two-way player who can make an impact in front of the net, where he scored his first goal, and he can skate. He collected a loose puck in the neutral zone and fought off a backcheck on a breakaway, beating goaltender Yaroslav Askarov to give the Lightning a two-goal lead.

“Whether you come from juniors or you come from Europe, you’ve got to get accustomed to the style of play and how things go down here,” Cooper said. “I think he’s improved every practice, every game, and I think he got rewarded tonight for some of his hard work.”

Despite his line, Tomkins was solid

All eyes are firmly focused on the Lightning’s goaltending situation with Andrei Vasilevskiy out for the first two months of the season after back surgery. And though Matt Tomkins, one of two goalies the team is currently leaning on, didn’t duplicate his 30 saves on 31 shots from his first preseason game Wednesday, in some ways his effort Saturday was more impressive.

Tomkins, who at 29 has yet to play in an NHL regular-season game, allowed four goals, but he aided the comeback effort in the third, stopping the first 13 shots of the period. Tomkins finished with 43 saves. He also stopped all eight shots he faced while Nashville was on the power play.

“He just has a really quiet game,” Cooper said. “He lets pucks hit him and puts them in the right places, and I thought he did another heck of a job. He let in four, but I can’t sit here and say, ‘Oh my God, I want that back.’ A lot of goalies in the league would have let those same four in.”

In two preseason starts, Tomkins has an impressive .935 save percentage. After Saturday’s postgame cuts, Vasilevskiy, Jonas Johansson and Tomkins are the three goalies remaining on the camp roster. Vasilevskiy will go on long-term injured reserve after opening night.

Hagel still plays like a guy fighting for his job

Fans will see a lot of Brandon Hagel, who got an eight-year, $52 million contract extension in August, this season. He can play alongside Anthony Cirelli as part of a relentless two-way line or he can hold his own sharing the ice with Point and Kucherov, as he did Saturday. He’s in line to get time on the second power play, and he might be the team’s best penalty-killing forward.

And though he has long-term security now, Hagel continues to play like a guy who has nothing guaranteed.

With the Lightning down a goal and opening the second period on the penalty for the first 69 seconds, Hagel stole the puck on the kill, raced down the ice, parted two Nashville defenders as he reached the blue line and put a nifty forehand-backhand move on Predators goalie Kevin Lankinen that gave him an open net and a goal that tied the score at 1.

Then when Hagel saw Kiefer Sherwood make a run on Kucherov midway through the third period, he stood up for his teammate, dropping his gloves and launching some roundhouse punches toward the Nashville forward.

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieintheYard.

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Source: Yahoo Sports


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