NHL Game Story: Prospects Shine Again in Preseason Win

Lightning prospects led the charge for the second straight night as the Bolts beat the Nashville Predators, 5-1, Thursday in preseason action at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Brett Connolly had two goals and Richard Panik and Ondrej Palat each added one while fellow prospects Nikita Kucherov, Luke Witkowski, and Andrej Sustr added assists.

Veterans Steven Stamkos (goal), Victor Hedman (2 assists), Ryan Malone (assist), and Matt Taormina (assist) also hit the scoresheet for the Lightning.

Tampa Bay’s 5-1 win comes 24 hours after 18-year-old Adam Erne scored twice and added the shootout winner in a victory over St. Louis in Orlando.

The Lightning’s top prospect, Jonathan Drouin, made his debut for the club, but did not register a point in just over 12 minutes of play. He showed off his slick stickwork on multiple occasions and competed physically. After the game Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Drouin’s upside “is endless” and highlighted his compete level shown by upping his effort to win a defensive zone faceoff after losing his first two.

Drouin was on a line with former first rounder Vlad Namestnikov and Kucherov. Drouin and Kucherov – two of only a handful of QMJHL players last year to average two points per game – spent one shift putting on a stickhandling exhibition.

“Kooch is a great player… he sees the ice so well and creates little plays like the back pass he gave me today,” Drouin said. “As time goes by, chemistry gets better and better. It’s great to play with him.”

Another Lightning first rounder, Riku Helenius, was flawless in net, stopping all 15 shots he faced, including several quality scoring chances.

Cedrick Desjardins was 16/17 in relief of Helenius, giving up a goal after he gave the puck away on the penalty kill.

Helenius was playing his first game since April 6, 2013, when he left the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch to return home to Finland due to the death of his mother.

“First game in a long time now for me, so if you’re not nervous I don’t know if that’s a good thing,” he said. “It’s good to be a little nervous. But after the game got going I got comfortable. Stickhandling is a little off, so maybe that’s part of the nervous thing, but I felt pretty good out there.”

Helenius credited the team in front of him for his perfect night.

“We played well defensively and kept them outside,” he said. “I saw almost all the shots and the ones that I didn’t see the guys blocked them. Good team effort all over.”

Helenius wasn’t the only one a bit nervous as several players got their first taste of an NHL game, including Witkowski.

“I was nervous, but I think it was a good kind of nervous,” the recent Western Michigan University graduate said. “They say playing with good players makes the game a little easier and I found that tonight. Guys were always in position and it was a really fast game. A really good experience.”

The Lightning will play in St. Louis on Friday night before returning home on Saturday to finish their stretch of four games in four days.

Prospects schedule to play in St. Louis include Palat, Panik, Sustr, Tyler Johnson, Mark Barberio, Dmitri Korobov, Artem Sergeev (debut), and Slater Koekkoek.