As the Lightning took to the ice at TD Bank Garden for game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, 1,336 miles away on the concourse outside the St. Pete Times Forum sat a sea of lawn chairs, all pointed towards the parking garage wall. Projected onto the garage three stories tall was the television feed for hundreds of Lightning fans to watch and cheer together.
The Bruins might poke fun at Tampa Bay hockey fans, numbering them among such elusive creatures as the Loch Ness Monster or Big Foot, but the black and blue masses Monday night disagree.
(As do, someone should mention, the numbers; which show 5,000 more fans walked through the turnstiles in Tampa this season than in Boston.)
The evening kicked off with a festive mood. Ninety minutes before puck drop, scores of fans were already trolling the concourse, playing games, snapping pictures on the zamboni, or with ThunderBug or the Lightning Girls. Local band Save the Radio was pumping out standard ’80s cover songs, assuring us all that it was indeed a “nice day for a white wedding.”
As everyone settled in front of the outdoor television, that celebratory feeling carried right over into the opening minutes of the game. The last note of the anthem had barely stopped ringing when on a 2-on-1 Stephen Stamkos found Simon Gagne, who buried the puck behind Tim Thomas, giving the Bolts the early lead and bringing the patio crowd to their feet.
Through the period and into the first intermission the mood remained light. Save the Radio once again took the stage, and a young man, dressed up as what can only be described as the Lightning fans equivalent of Quail Man, dashed around entertaining all.
But as the sun dropped from the sky and the game entered the crucial second period, the Bruins battled back.
When Nathan Horton blasted a one-timer from the slot past Mike Smith, a single Boston fan, a young lady in a Milan Lucic t-shirt jersey, stood and celebrated as boos from the Lightning faithful rained down upon her.
By the time Patrice Bergeron threaded a pass across the crease for Brad Marchard to give the Bruins the 2-1 lead later in the second, the young lady celebrated without repute.
A nervous quiet overtook the crowd for the remainder of the period.
During the second intermission, no stranger to comeback, the fans rallied, breaking into chants of “Let’s Go Bolts!”. Tampa Bay had come from behind into the first round series against the Penguins after falling down three games to none, and they overcame a three-goal deficit Saturday afternoon to pick up the win in game 4 at home.
As the third began the entire crowd was leaning forward in their seats anxiously awaiting the game-tier.
It looked like they had it when Blair Jones cut across the goal-mouth, lifting a shot over the glove of Thomas. As he looked back toward the net Jones raised his arms, expecting to see the puck in the net behind Thomas.
Somewhere on the concourse outside the Forum someone hit an air horn, and taking their cue, the fans broke out into celebration. It was a long few seconds before anyone realized play had continued. A replay confirmed what they feared: somehow Thomas was able to get just the tiniest piece of the shot, veering it wide, off the post and out.
I cannot tell you who was more flabbergasted, Blair Jones or the middle-aged man a few feet to my right, wearing earbuds to listen to the radio feed, and having abandoned his seat to pace anxiously through the third.
As the period progressed, each save from Smith was more important than the last, and the crowd let out gasps with each shot that he turned aside to keep the Lightning within one.
But across the ice Thomas was matching him save for save.
Again the Lightning appeared to have the tying goal when Eric Brewer’s shot from the blue-line missed wide, hitting off the boards and bouncing fortuitously to the stick of Steve Downie, who faced an open net.
A sprawling Thomas dove backwards, extending his stick and getting the toe of his blade on Downie’s shot, denying it right on the red of the goal-line.
As they continued to throw everything they had at him, it became apparent that the best goaltender in the NHL was bent on stealing this game for the B’s.
(Personally, I blame Lightning color commentator Bobby “Chief” Taylor for tempting fate. Addressing the crowd before the game, he deflected attention from the Lightning’s change in net by claiming Thomas could not stop a beach ball. But that’s just me, and I’ve been known to be a tad superstitious.)
Down a goal late, with the clock racing toward zeros, the Bolts pulled Smith for an extra attacker.
With 12 seconds remaining in the game, Rich Peverley sealed the deal for the Bruins, scoring an empty-net goal and setting the masses on the forum concourse into action, folding up lawn chairs and packing up coolers.
“Don’t worry,” says a voice in the crowd to everyone else and no one in particular, but mostly to himself.
“We’ll get them in seven.”