Season Series: Friday’s matchup at the RBC Center in Raleigh marks the first of six meetings on the year between the division rivals. Last season, the Bolts took four of six games from the Hurricanes, including two of three on the road. Following the first meeting, the clubs will face off again on Nov. 1 and Mar. 3 at Carolina and will also play three times at the St. Pete Times Forum on Dec. 31, Jan. 12 and Mar. 6.
The Big Story: Tampa Bay comes into Friday’s game with a 10-6-2 all-time record in season openers. It also marks the third time in team history that the Lightning will open up the season against Carolina. Tampa Bay won both of those previous matches to open up the 2005-06 campaign as well as the 1997-98 season. The Lightning’s mettle will also be tested early on, as this season opening road trip spans five games and 10 days, which is the longest of the season. Last season, the time away from home seemed to have little effect on the club, as Tampa Bay still managed a 21-14-6 record on the road, which ranked in the top five among Eastern Conference teams.
LIGHTNING – Fans in Tampa Bay have been anxiously awaiting the end of a long summer just as much as the season opener, especially after falling just one game shy of the Stanley Cup Finals last season. Tampa Bay returns to the ice just four months after tying the franchise single-season record for wins with 46 and recording 103 points, which was good for the second highest total in team history. The Bolts undoubtedly will try to surpass those marks beginning with the opening contest at Carolina, but will have to do it with a few new faces that were not in the lineup at the start of last season’s opener against Atlanta. Among those are defensemen Bruno Gervais and Matt Gilroy and also a number of new forwards including Blair Jones, Ryan Shannon, Brett Connolly and Mattias Ritola. The team wrapped up a successful training camp and preseason schedule that included three wins, but also suffered a setback to begin the season, as defenseman Mattias Ohlund will begin 2011-12 on Injured Reserve. The move should allow Victor Hedman to earn premium minutes playing on the top defensive pairing with Eric Brewer, as well as ease the young defenseman into playing against opponents’ top lines. The Lightning will travel to Boston immediately following their bout with Carolina for a rematch of last season’s Eastern Conference Final in the Bolts’ first back-to-back set of the season. The team’s remaining three road games on the trip will feature two against division rivals Washington and Florida, which will straddle an additional game mid-week against the New York Islanders.
HURRICANES – There is a possibility that, despite starting anew, Carolina is still reeling from a loss on the last day of the 2010-11 regular season when Tampa Bay officially knocked it out of the playoff picture. Still, the Hurricanes should find solace in the fact that just six months ago, they weren’t too far behind the curve. Carolina finished just two points behind the New York Rangers for the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot, missing out on the postseason for the second consecutive year. The Hurricanes (40-31-11) went 5-1-1 over their final seven games, narrowly missing their first playoff berth since advancing to the conference finals in 2009. Center Eric Staal is poised to have another impressive season offensively for Carolina, as is sophomore sensation Jeff Skinner, who won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie after notching 31 goals and 63 points. Adding to their core, the Hurricanes acquired 33-year-old defenseman Tomas Kaberle, who won the Stanley Cup with Boston, and signed 31-year-old former Los Angeles forward Alex Ponikarovsky. Veteran goaltender Cam Ward returns for his seventh season after going 37-26-10 with a 2.56 goals-against average, and former Flyer net minder Brian Boucher was also recently added to the goaltending mix to serve as his backup.
Who’s Hot: Tampa Bay’s Brett Connolly looks to carry his team-leading five points during the preseason into the start of the regular campaign tonight. Like Connolly, Bolts forward Steven Stamkos also scored two goals in the final two preseason games and looks to add to his total of 96 regular season goals over the last two seasons, which are the most among any NHL player in that span. Carolina’s new addition, Alex Ponikarovsky, recorded three points in four preseason games to lead the Hurricanes, while Patrick Dwyer finished the exhibition campaign strong himself, notching two points in as many games to close out the preseason.
Injury Report: LIGHTNING – Mattias Ohlund (knee, placed on Injured Reserve). HURRICANES – None.
Notable Quotable: “We get thrown right into it. We’ll see how well we prepared in the preseason, but no doubt we’re going to be tested right away. It’s going to be a good challenge. We’re on the road for 10 days and it’s another opportunity for the team to come together.” – Lightning forward Ryan Shannon, on starting the new season with a five-game, 10-day road trip
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