Lightning Have Tough Opening Stretch to Start Season

There are 82 regular season games in the NHL, so you can’t expect a team to win every matchup. Teams can start off poorly and rebound to make a surprise run in the playoffs, or have a great start only to slide narrowly into a wild card spot. So, Tampa Bay Lightning fans, don’t be too worried that the month of October looks scary.

The Lightning are on the road for the first three games and play seven out of nine away from Amalie Arena to start the 2022-23 season. In addition, both Zach Bogosian and Anthony Cirelli will miss the beginning of the season while recovering from surgeries. The good news is, that they have played extremely well on the road since the 2019-20 shortened season with an overall record of 60-36-9 during that span. They also routinely win the first game of the season, holding a .690 record, which is second-best in the NHL (behind the Vegas Golden Knights). With all that said, let’s look at the matchups during October.

Metropolitan Division Has Something to Prove

Five of the Lightning’s first six games are against Metropolitan Division opponents, starting with the season opener at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers on Oct. 11. When these two teams played in the Eastern Conference Final last season, the Rangers relied on young talent and superb goaltending from Igor Shesterkin. They won all three of the games, including two on the road. There is no reason to believe the outcome will be much different this season. They are a tough team to beat—no matter if they are at home or on the road. However, with the Bolts’ playoff success against them last postseason, they could win at least one of the three contests.

The first of two back-to-back matchups begins with the Columbus Blue Jackets and their new star forward Johnny Gaudreau, who immediately makes the team a contender in an already tough division. If Elvis Merzlikins can remain healthy, he may provide the stability that the team needs to make the playoffs for the first time since 2020. Last season he split the two games he started against the Lightning.

The very next evening, the team flies to Pittsburgh to take on the Penguins. During a regular season game last March that they lost 5-1, Lightning coach Jon Cooper was ejected from the game for arguing with an official, which is a rarity for the even-tempered coach. Although that was uncharacteristic, it just proves how frustrating it can be to play against Sidney Crosby, coupled with an effective goalie in Tristan Jarry.

Lightning Home Opener & Interstate Opponents

On Tuesday, Oct. 18, the Lightning finally hold their home opener against the Philadelphia Flyers, who have a new coach behind the bench in John Tortorella. In 2004, he led the Lightning to their first Stanley Cup championship and should improve his new team, who finished last in the Metropolitan Division last season. Although he will have to do it without two of his young offensive players in Joel Farabee and Bobby Brink, and veteran defenseman Ryan Ellis, as all three players are expected to miss the start of the season.

John Tortorella Columbus Blue Jackets
John Tortorella, is the new head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Last season’s divisional playoff matchup between the Lightning and Florida Panthers saw the Bolts dismantle their “so-called” interstate rival. During the offseason, the Panthers signed Matthew Tkachuk to beef up their offense, which was curiously missing during the playoffs. Although the acquisition of the star forward made a big splash, it won’t automatically create a rivalry between the two Florida teams. However, the team down state is just annoying enough to put a dent in the Lightning’s Atlantic Division record each year. Expectations are high for the Panthers in 2022-23, and they will need to dominate in the regular season much like they did last year. The teams meet for the first of four regular-season games on Friday, Oct. 21, in Sunrise, Florida.

Related: Flyers Hire John Tortorella As New Head Coach

The Lightning return home the next night to face the New York Islanders, who played the first 13 games away from home while they waited for UBS Arena to open in 2021-22. The team never rebounded from their road losses, going 5-6-2. Only one year removed from taking the Lightning to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, the Islanders went 37-35-10 for fifth place in their division last season. At 16 points behind the last wild card spot, you know their fans expected a much more successful season. Playing two tough teams on consecutive nights will be a real test for the Lightning early in 2022-23.

Lightning Make Early West Coast Swing

With two days’ rest, the Lightning make an early visit to the West Coast in October, playing the Los Angeles Kings, who took the Edmonton Oilers to seven games in the first round of last season’s playoffs. Jonathan Quick, their 36-year-old goaltender, put the team on his back and made a run for the Cup. In the offseason, they made a great trade to bring Kevin Fiala to the team from the Minnesota Wild. With a seven-year contract, worth $7.875 million per year, the 26-year-old should provide a spark for the team.

John Klingberg, the former Dallas Stars defenseman, was one of the last big-name free agents to sign in the offseason. He moved further west and signed with the Anaheim Ducks, as did right winger Frank Vatrano. They should improve from their second-to-last place ranking a season ago and benefit from these two new players when the Lightning face them near the end of the month.

John Klingberg Dallas Stars
John Klingberg joins the Anaheim Ducks (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Lightning close out their West Coast swing with a visit to the San Jose Sharks in a Saturday afternoon game. Staying a step ahead of the Ducks all last season, they made some moves this summer, including trading long-time favorite Brent Burns to the Carolina Hurricanes and acquiring Nico Sturm, who just won the Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche. The team also made some off-ice moves by hiring Mike Grier as general manager and David Quinn as head coach.

The first half of the season could be challenging for the Lightning with a tough opening stretch of games and an early West Coast road trip. The loss of Bogosian and Cirelli for an undetermined amount of time could also contribute to a potentially slow start. However, if they can weather these early games and find the right line combinations, they should stay in the playoff hunt again next season. The schedule really doesn’t get much easier as the season unfolds.