TAMPA — Chicago took the first game. Tampa Bay stole back the next two. But NBC won all three.
The network and the NHL are enjoying record U.S. television ratings as the Tampa Bay Lightning battle the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup final.
The first contest between the Lightning and Blackhawks on June 3 was the most-watched Game 1 in 18 years that did not go into overtime. It was seen by an average of 5.5 million viewers nationwide, according to Nielsen.
Game 2 did even better. It was the most watched second game of the Stanley Cup final ever, reining in an average of 6.6 million viewers.
So how is a hockey team in the Sunshine State — in the nation's 13th largest television market — helping attract record U.S. viewers to a sport born up north and played on ice?
"I think people thought with us being a Sun Belt team our ratings would not be strong," Lightning president Steve Griggs said. "I think we've proven otherwise."
The ratings reflect the rising popularity of the NHL, particularly in a region where the game is relatively new. Hockey was invented centuries ago, but Tampa Bay got its NHL team just 23 years ago.
Media experts say this sort of bandwagon following can be expected.
"Even though Tampa Bay might not be the biggest hockey town in the country," said Northwestern University communications professor Jim Webster, "you've got a hometown team playing for a championship.
"Everybody loves a winner."
The close games could also help sustain strong audience numbers. A closely fought, back-and-forth series, Webster said, could spark a "special kind of interest in the series finale."
And more American viewers watching the series may mean more fans for the franchise.
"They may develop a taste for ice hockey down in Tampa and be more inclined to view it even when their team's not in the Stanley Cup," Webster said.
Local ratings have borne that out. Game 1 drew a 17.9 rating, the highest ever by a Lightning game on an NBC network in the Tampa Bay television market. Game 2 drew the second-highest ever rating locally at 15.1. By comparison, Chicago drew a 28 in Game 1 and 22.6 in Game 2.
There are also more U.S. viewers watching the Lightning's return to the Stanley Cup final than saw them win the championship in 2004. An average of 3.3 million watched the 2004 Stanley Cup final over seven games, according to Nielsen. But after two games, this year's series is averaging 6 million nationally so far.
After 2004, the franchise and its fortunes waned. Jeff Vinik revived both when the former Boston hedge fund manager bought the team and arena lease in 2010 for a reported $110 million. He has invested tens of millions more to fix the team's front office, roster and building.
The results have been apparent this season. Thousands have attended the team's Stanley Cup watch parties, which outgrew the Amalie Arena courtyard and have moved to Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
The Blackhawks have contributed greatly to NBC's ratings success as well. The team won the Stanley Cup in 2013, have cultivated a national following and the Chicago area is the third-largest media market in the country
It's still hockey, though.
This year's Stanley Cup viewership numbers pale in comparison to the NBA Finals. Sunday's Game 2 alone delivered an average of 18.8 million viewers, making it the most watched Game 2 ever shown on ABC.
"That shows America's affinity for basketball as opposed to ice hockey," Webster said. "I think a lot of Americans don't quite understand ice hockey."
Maybe so, but more are watching it now. With the Stanley Cup final logging unprecedented viewership nationally and regionally, the NHL could see an influx of new fans.
"Non-hockey fans have really jumped on," Griggs said. The team and the NHL are banking on turning those viewers into casual fans and then diehard fans — the kind that buy season tickets and merchandise.
"It's a team that captured interest of hockey fans across the country," said Michael Mondello, a sports marketing professor at the University of South Florida's Muma College of Business.
On a recent trip north he was surprised to see several Canadians donning Tampa Bay gear.
"People are following the Tampa story."