TAMPA — It is widely assumed the Lightning operates under financial stress, but other than the $15 million it received in league revenue sharing, the scope has been hard to quantify.
Attendance figures provided by Hillsborough County — an average turnstile count of 10,576 through the first 12 games at the 22,000 capacity St. Pete Times Forum — indicate a difficult environment, especially considering ticket and concession sales are the lifeblood of NHL franchises.
Officially, Tampa Bay entered Wednesday with an average announced crowd of 14,470, 24th in the 30-team league, and it drew an announced 13,477 against the Oilers. But as is customary in the NHL, those numbers include tickets sold and distributed. The county's number is fans in the building. Unavailable was how many tickets were sold.
"I don't know if ticket numbers are ever where you want them to be, and we know our team performance the past couple of years combined with a difficult economy does not make a good equation by any means," Lightning spokesman Bill Wickett said. "But we are bullish on the remainder of this year and the future."
Still, how different this season is from 2005-06, the first after the organization's 2004 Stanley Cup victory, when it averaged an announced 20,509, second in the league.
Not only do smaller crowds diminish atmosphere — the Oct. 31 game with the Devils was a season-low 7,882 — but the Lightning this season discounted a good percentage of season-ticket packages.
That said, attendance is expected to increase once football season goes away and more snowbirds are in the area. What would help most, though, is a better on-ice product.
"Our team is competitive," Wickett said. "As 2009 turns into 2010, we expect stronger attendance numbers night in and night out."
UP WITH DOWNIE: Coach Rick Tocchet went out of his way before the game to praise RW Steve Downie, whom he called "one of our best forwards the past six games."
Downie has five goals and 12 points, and three goals and five points in his past nine games.
"He's progressed from training camp," Tocchet said. "Every day he's gotten better."
Downie's reward: He began Wednesday on a line with C Steven Stamkos.
"It doesn't matter if I play good or bad if we're not winning," Downie said. "We're struggling, so it's hard to be happy."
WHERE'S NIK? Oilers G Nikolai Khabibulin did not make the trip because of a back injury that has caused him to miss nine straight games. It is the third time the former Lightning star missed a chance to play at the Times Forum since leaving as a free agent.
Khabibulin, whose last game in Tampa was Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup final, was to play here in December 2005 with the Blackhawks until he said he decided it would be too emotional. He missed last season's chance with a groin injury.
ODDS AND ENDS: LW Todd Fedoruk played after nine straight scratches. … Defensemen Matt Smaby and Matt Walker were scratched.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com.