NASHVILLE — Leading into a night the Lightning had been anticipating for months, players kept telling themselves the most important part of competing in the franchise’s first outdoor game was coming home with two points.
But Saturday night’s Stadium Series game against the Predators at the NFL Titans’ Nissan Stadium proved to be no ordinary regular-season game. Even after hoisting the Stanley Cup the past two seasons, playing overseas and possessing a star-studded lineup, the Lightning had never really been in a showcase event like this one.
The atmosphere for the Lightning’s 3-2 win seemed more like a Super Bowl, fitting for an NFL stadium. Big-name musical acts playing during breaks in play. Fireworks lit up the sky. The game drew a prime-time weekend national TV slot.
“You always dream of winning a Stanley Cup,” coach Jon Cooper said. “But being able to play one of these games, you’re checking one off the bucket list there. They’re just a remarkable show.
“It’s a show, and I know one team wins the game. But I don’t know how anybody in the end can leave on a downer after the event that was put on. … It definitely doesn’t feel like (just) Game 51 (of the season).”
After holding a pair of boat parades the past two years to celebrate their Cup victories, the Lightning (34-11-6) know how to celebrate. They were set on taking a postgame victory lap through the bars of the Lower Broadway entertainment district in the Canadian tuxedos they wore for their arrival at the stadium.
“We’ve got it going on (Saturday night),” forward Pat Maroon said. “We’re going to look sharp. If you guys are out and about, you’ll see us. You can’t miss us.”
Only six players on the roster had played in an outdoor game before.
There were some differences from an indoor game. Players wore eye black to deal with the glare on the ice from the stadium lights. The puck was difficult to corral. Goalies had to deal with unpredictable bounces. As far as the weather, it was almost perfect, clear and just cold enough to feel it in your cheeks.
Nashville’s rich country music culture served as a backdrop.
A house band played on the field between whistles. Just off the rink and in front of either goal, country stars Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley performed on makeshift stages during the first intermission.
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Three hours before the opening puck drop, a red tractor hitched to a wagon that held the Lightning players pulled up to the gates of Nissan Stadium. Players hopped off, each wearing all denim — jean jackets and blue jeans — with bolo ties, cowboy hats and cowboy boots.
“It was not the normal game-day routine, but all of that made it really unbelievable,” said forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who had played in three previous outdoor games.
Players immediately noticed the contingent of Lightning fans upon arriving in Nashville on Friday afternoon. The team sold out its 20,000-ticket allotment and seemed to have at least another 10,000 fans in the stands among the announced crowd of 68,619, the largest crowd the Lightning have played in front of.
Cooper said he was jolted every time Tampa Bay scored — twice in the second period to erase a 1-0 deficit, once in the third to go up 3-1 — because the biggest group of Lightning fans was sitting behind their bench.
“It was remarkable,” Cooper said. “I always had to turn around when we scored. They were, like, all behind us, probably strategically placed. It was a sea of blue.”
Those fans came to life after the Lightning scored a pair of power-play goals in the second period to take a 2-1 lead.
After defenseman Erik Cernak took a right shoulder to the head 1:19 into the game, the Lightning seemed intent on showing they wouldn’t be pushed around on a big stage. Two fights followed, and Maroon, the team’s enforcer who tussled with Predators forward Michael McCarron in the first period, seemed to be looking for a second sparring partner.
Brayden Point scored with a man advantage 58 seconds into the second period, taking a pass from Nikita Kucherov and roofing the puck from the slot. Kucherov flicked in the go-ahead goal from the right circle 6:18 into the period.
And when Steven Stamkos, who assisted on the first two goals, rifled a shot low past Nashville goaltender Juuse Saros with 8:29 left in the third for the eventual winner, a noticeable number of the Nashville fans started heading for the exits.
“We actually even mentioned it in the dressing room before the game, our coaching staff did, that there was some extra motivation because of all the fans that we had,” Stamkos said. “We wanted to go out there and perform well for them. It’s been a long time coming for organization.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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