SUNRISE — The hockey preseason often offers little insight as to how a team will perform during the regular season.
Veterans use the exhibition games to regain timing and game speed. Rookies use them to try to make an impression. Coaches use the preseason to evaluate players in all kinds of situations and determine who will remain when final roster decisions are made.
There is virtually no way to correlate preseason success into winning games when they start to count.
But it doesn’t mean meaningless games have no meaning.
The Lightning played seven exhibition games this preseason, and they won five.
Coming from behind by three goals once, winning a pair of shootouts and rallying from down two before notching an overtime victory. Tampa Bay found different ways to win, and did so never really fielding a lineup on the ice that resembles what the opening-night lineup will be on Thursday in Boston.
“That (getting a taste of success) is something to build on,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “You sit here and see the guys on the bench talk about what our one-goal games were last year, and that was a big contention for us coming into the preseason, you have to learn to win one-goal games.’’
As the preseason progressed, Tampa Bay found a way and started to rack up victories, including four in four consecutive days in three different cities. Of the five wins, four came by one goal with the only loss coming in a 2-1 setback at Nashville.
“I know I’ll wake up in the morning and we’ll have zero points (in the standings) but we are not an established group that has been together for 10 or 12 years, and those teams probably treat the preseason a little differently than we are,” Cooper said.
“But in saying that, you look at our lineup and we are playing a lot of teams that a majority of the players in their lineup will be their starting lineup. We (didn’t) field one.”
Yet, despite fielding a young lineup most nights and being outplayed by some teams in stretches, whatever lineup played found ways to win. Whether it was the result of Richard Panik scoring a third-period, short-handed goal on Thursday to tie Florida before Nikita Kucherov won the game in overtime, Adam Erne notching two goals as well as a shootout-clinching goal, or Jonathan Drouin securing another victory with a successful shootout attempt, it all results in building a foundation of success and learning how to make it happen.
It also has offered the opportunity for a player such as Drouin — a highly touted draft pick expected to start the season with the Lightning — going up against a near-full opposing lineup in order to see the NHL pace, understand what it takes to get up to that speed and also get a feel for some of the in-your-face style of play he will see during games in the regular season.
“You are going to play those real lineups in real games, and the past two it’s been pretty much the same. So it’s fun to get the chance to see what it will be like if I make the team,” Drouin said. “It was great to see the pace on the ice and everything that was going on.”
Now the Lightning have to find a way to keep building on some of that success and carry it over to the regular season when the full lineup is on the ice together for the first time next week.
“Winning games in the preseason, for us — and I’m sure a lot of people will say it’s just preseason and they are peaking too early or whatever they might say — I’m not believing that,’’ Cooper said. “We want to win all the games. We can’t predict what will happen in the regular season, but we want to build that mentality now.’’