TAMPA — The score was 2-2 going into overtime. A rocking Amalie Arena watch party crowd of 16,061 fell silent when the Canadiens scored the winning goal to claim their first game of the Stanley Cup final. Now Tampa Bay fans await the arrival of two storms: Elsa and the Lightning.
One more game to victory. And after last year’s championship game in the Edmonton bubble, this time Bolts backers might actually get to see their team clinch the Cup in person instead of from 2,800 miles away.
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For Tim Stevenson, whose grandparents got him into the Lightning when he was around 5 years old, this year’s final has been more exciting and less surreal than the bubble. He watched the 2020 championship run from his grandparents’ back deck. This year, he got to experience some of it with thousands of other fans.
“It gives more of a real, non-COVID era game,” said Stevenson, 17. “Especially tonight with it being completely sold out.”
Michael Szczesniak, 19, watched last year’s final in his dorm room at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. But he went to Game 1 of the 2021 final in person.
“It was electric,” he said. “And there’s more fans here tonight than there was in Game 1.”
Tim Dawson, 18, said the three friends, who all live in Tampa, will “absolutely” try to get Game 5 tickets.
Even though they’re expensive, Szczesniak said it’d be worth it to possibly see the Lightning clinch at home in person.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
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Lifelong Lightning fan and Land O’ Lakes native Abigail Jones’ favorite part of being in Amalie Arena is the buzzer that goes off after every Tampa Bay goal — and a chance to make it on the Jumbotron. Her go-to move when she finds herself on the big screen, she said, is to put on her Andrei Vasilevskiy mask, which she had tucked under her arm along with a blue foam finger in Thunder Alley before Game 4.
Abigail, 9, her sister Shelby, 14, and their dad, Aaron, 42, have been to a number of games this postseason. The Game 5 semifinal against New York, in which the Lightning shut out the Islanders, and Game 1 of the final.
Like many, they watched the 2020 run from home. While they couldn’t see Tampa Bay hoist the Cup in person, being able to watch part of the 2021 run unfold from Amalie felt like the next best thing.
“We’re around people. It makes it a lot better,” said Aaron, holding a homemade “Big Cat” sign in honor of the Lightning’s goaltender.
The trio won’t make it out to Game 5, though, citing $3,000-plus ticket prices. Instead, they’ll watch the Bolts finish out another final from home.
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Keara Ann and Cass Rodriguez, who hail from Clermont, are relatively new Lightning fans, having hopped on the wave last year when their Orlando Solar Bears partnered with Tampa Bay. What they lacked in seniority, they made up for in commitment this season.
“We’ve watched every game except for two,” said Keara Ann, 23, decked out in Lightning gear and sporting festive blue eyeshadow. “And we listened to those just because they weren’t covered on any of the TV stations we have. So, pretty invested this year compared to last year.”
Unable to attend any postseason games in Amalie this year, Monday was Keara Ann and Cass’ second watch party. For the most part, though, Keara Ann felt like the experience was like that of a home game, minus the players.
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Hannah Heck, 19, watched the 2020 final with her uncle. It was one of the last times she saw him, as he recently died of cancer. So, being able to watch Game 4 at Amalie in her hometown was big, she said.
But to celebrate the run, Heck felt like spending the night surrounded by fellow Lightning fans was the best way.
“The spirit of the arena, and everyone knowing this is home, and we’re proud of it,” she said. “I think that’ll be enough celebration in itself.”
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