Lightning’s Game 1 watch party draws 7,200, with a few Avalanche fans sprinkled in

Two sisters bring out their tinfoil Stanley Cup replica, and one Avalanche fan dedicates the team’s postseason run to his late friend who first introduced him to the team.
Fans gather at Amalie Arena for the official Lightning watch party of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday night.
Fans gather at Amalie Arena for the official Lightning watch party of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday night. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published June 16, 2022

TAMPA — The Pesquera sisters have been to “pretty much” every watch party inside or outside of Amalie Arena since the Lightning repeated as Stanley Cup champions last season. Emily and Kimberly, both 19, only bring out their tinfoil replica of Lord Stanley for “good luck” on very specific occasions, however.

“At home, it stays in the garage,” said their mother, Flo. “We don’t take it out until the finals. It’s not allowed to come out until the finals, because it’s a jinx. Now we’re going for the Cup, so it’s allowed to come out.”

Constructed at home during the pandemic title run in 2020, it has been to both boat parades and — as is now customary with the actual trophy — has been drunk out of countless times. With so many people wanting to touch the cup, pandemic-era precautions were necessary.

“We even had to sanitize the cup, Lysol the cup,” Emily said.

The Pesqueras brought their Stanley Cup replica to Amalie Arena and were two of 7,200 fans who filed inside for the watch party Wednesday, continuing a road-game tradition that has defined the Lightning’s last two playoff runs.

Before moving to Riverview, the Pesqueras were Devils fans from New Jersey’s Middlesex County, so the Bolts’ victory over the Rangers in the Eastern Conference final brought extra satisfaction. In large part due to the organization’s strong community presence, they are now “strictly Lightning fans.”

But for one of the only Avalanche fans sprinkled throughout Amalie Arena, this game — and this series — has a deeper meaning. Chris Conley, 52, moved to Port Richey from Colorado nine months ago — his company transferred him to Florida — and he’s been an Avalanche fan for more than two decades.

The introduction to the Avalanche came from his friend, Stacey, back in 1997. She had an Avalanche decal hanging from her car’s visor and was someone who would scream at her television during games, Conley said. When they worked together in Atlanta, they’d fly to Avalanche games at least six times each season.

Stacey was diagnosed with breast cancer and died five years ago on Conley’s birthday, and Conley said that he knew he couldn’t support any other team after that. He only saw one other Avalanche jersey as he rode his motorcycle down Channelside Drive before the game, and he’s trying to secure tickets for Game 4. If the Avalanche won their first Stanley Cup since 2001, it’s something that Stacey “would go nuts over.”

“She would love to be here,” Conley said.

Fans started filing into the arena a few minutes after 7 p.m., and cheers echoed as Brayden Point touched the puck for the first time on a rush two minutes in — the center missed the Lightning’s last two series with a lower-body injury. And for the first part of the frame, Conley’s Avalanche led behind two quick goals and another tally later in the first period.

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Nick Paul had the Lightning’s first goal midway through the first period, the type of scrappy tally that has quickly endeared the trade-deadline acquisition to Lightning fans like 18-year-old Ben Jensen.

“I do miss some players,” said Jensen, who noted the departure of Yanni Gourde and his boat-parade antics (like climbing on equipment during a storm to hype up the crowd). “But (Brandon) Hagel and Paul, they’ve been absolute beasts. Corey Perry’s been a beast, too.”

It’s still been a special run for Avalanche fans like Conley, though. He has watched the losses that ended recent seasons of promise, then seen the team’s response this year as they produced 56 wins, 119 points and a first-place finish in the Western Conference. But their final test to claim their first Stanley Cup in two decades comes against a “fantastic team.”

“What better chance to prove that you’re elite than to face the two-time defending champion,” Conley said.

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