TAMPA — There weren’t many butts in seats at Thunder Alley for the final 10 minutes of the Lightning’s Game 6 Stanley Cup-clinching win Monday night against the Dallas Stars in Edmonton.
Amid a sea of socially distanced blue and white, hundreds of Lightning fans stood and chanted in anticipation as the clock slowly ticked toward zero. Each clearance of the puck was celebrated like a winning goal; each faceoff win sent glowing Thunder Sticks straight into the air.
When the clock finally struck zero — and the Lightning’s 16-year wait to lift the Stanley Cup a second time had ended with a 2-0 victory — arms flailed and beer was flung, raining down on jerseys and T-shirts as fans hugged, high-fived and cried.
Their wait was finally over.
“Just utter joy,” said Julie Paine, 56, of St. Petersburg moments after the final horn gave Tampa Bay its second Stanley Cup (it also won in 2004). “I don’t even know what to say. I could say so much, but I’m so happy for this team’s core — and for all of our fans and what we’ve gone through since (2014-15). We deserve this.”
As fans all around her jumped and screamed, Paine stood alone — her eyes locked on the Lightning players celebrating on the video screen above, with one hand over her mask and mouth, and one on a Lightning flag that she had been waving all game.
The win went beyond just the sport of hockey.
For the region, it was a rallying point amid a pandemic and political tensions just two months before Election Day. For Paine, who wiped away tears as she spoke, it was something to smile about just a year after losing her father.
“This had been the worst year,” she said. “Now we all have something to smile about. Just utter, utter joy.”
Samantha Soboleski, who is 21 and lives in Land O’ Lakes, had a shorter remark moments following the win: “I’m shocked but not surprised — we’re just better."
For some, the win was bittersweet: ecstatic that their team avenged 2015′s Stanley Cup final loss — it also ended 2-0 in Game 6, with the Lightning on the losing end to the Chicago Blackhawks — but also bummed that they couldn’t be inside Amalie Arena to see the Bolts hoist Lord Stanley in person.
“Sixteen years ago I was at center ice when the Lightning won Game 7,” said Kevin Smith, 46, of Lakeland. “Now, not all of the money in the world could get me inside that arena tonight. I’d kill to be there.”
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Smith was so anxious for Monday’s game that he didn’t sit down once. That standing quickly turned to jumping as the final horn in Edmonton blared through the outdoor speakers of Thunder Alley.
With a 2-0 lead in Game 6 entering the final period Monday, hundreds of fans started to line up outside Thunder Alley to join the hundreds inside the arena and outside its main gates.
Some of those outside were season ticket holders, such as 23-year-old Hunter Jones. He had been in Thunder Alley for Saturday’s Game 5 loss but didn’t get reserved tickets to get in for Monday’s game.
“We didn’t think there was any way they wouldn’t close it out Saturday,” said Jones, a season ticket holder from Sarasota. “So we didn’t bother. ... But we still had to come support tonight. We were always going to be here."
The wishes of Hunter and hundreds of others to get into Thunder Alley would eventually come true, however. Just as Lightning captain Steven Stamkos took the Stanley Cup from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on the big screen, fans from outside piled into Thunder Alley, as emphatic and loud as those who had been there all day.
“There’s going to be some partying tonight,” Jones said. “I don’t know how late the city will be up, but we’ll all be out.”