TAMPA, Fla. — A prolonged winter ended with a pleasing thaw.
Approach this uncommon Opening Night at Tampa Bay Times Forum however you wish: A time to heal, a chance to cling to a cold shoulder, an opportunity to move beyond an inexplicable 113-day lockout but remain wary about the NHL’s direction.
Whichever path is chosen, the pavement is similar. It’s imperfect. It’s a little rough. There are perhaps more than a few speed bumps to come on this 48-game dragstrip. Some fans may forgive. Others may be lost for good. But at long last, the league’s wheels are turning again.
So after more than two hours of entertaining, exhilarating hockey here, we ask: What the heck took so long? And wasn’t the return refreshing?
“We were excited,” said Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos, after his team’s 6-3 victory over the Washington Capitals on Saturday. “It has been a long time for everyone since we played an NHL game. It was a little bit of a feeling-out process, but guys showed up. We got a big win. We wanted to take advantage of the home crowd, and we did.”
The scene here was one piece of league-wide IOU toward the oil that makes this engine run: The fans. Pregame montages thanking the locals were beamed on a gorgeous $5 million high-definition video board. After lineups were introduced, Tampa Bay center Vincent Lecavalier addressed the announced sellout of 19,204 near center ice by saying, “We thank you for the support. Welcome back.”
What a welcome it was. The Lightning scored three consecutive third-period goals — from winger Martin St. Louis, center Cory Conacher and defenseman Eric Brewer — to continue their recent mastery of the Capitals in this building, after claiming all three contests played between the Southeast Division foes here last season. Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher called it a “pressure game.” Considering the shortened schedule, in which each point will carry more value in this breakneck existence, it’s hard to argue against him.
With pressure came release, though. By the last two minutes, Tampa Bay Times Forum morphed into a party. Chants of “Tampa…Bay!” and “Let’s go Lightning!” lifted from the upper bowl. Fans stood applauding for the last 10 seconds. For a moment, it was as if all the bickering and conference-room quibbles, the nonsense and blurred values that drove the NHL’s narrative since mid-September were scrubbed from memory.
For too long, we had Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr. Saturday, we were given closure.
“Overall, it was a very solid game,” said Lecavalier, who scored one of Tampa Bay’s two goals in the first period. “We’re just very excited. Obviously, it was the first game of the season…. A lot of emotions. We took a few penalties off the get-go. We calmed down, and I thought everybody played with a lot of poise.”
Poise took time. Given the stage, Boucher knew this night would be a test. Keep in mind, it was no ordinary first day at the office. This was a sweating-bullets performance review from the time the puck was dropped, given how crucial each game will be.
The coach had to like what he saw on Day 1. The Lightning scored three power-play goals, including two in the third period. Four players found the net, including center Cory Conacher in his NHL debut. There were no signs of a tired or ill-prepared or overmatched group. Quite the opposite, in fact.
This was a complete effort. By the third period, this was a clinic on stamina. The Capitals, who never led, were gassed. The Lightning had fuel to burn. Not bad for a first impression. Not bad for kicking off lockout rust.
“It’s good for confidence for the whole team,” said Lightning goalie Anders Lindback, who had 27 saves. “It felt like we played well out there together. It’s always good to get a good start. But the most important thing, I think, is we played really well. We worked hard in the neutral zone in our own end. That’s the biggest part that it feels like we’re good in all those aspects, and we just have to keep working from that.”
Working is the key word. Starts can be deceptive. Yes, the Lightning are an unfinished study. Yes, Opening Night offered pomp and pageantry but little insight into how they will look in late April. We will learn more.
But that’s not what mattered Saturday. The moment, not the journey, was given time to shine.
“You do want to please your fans,” Boucher said. “The whole idea was they had been waiting so long…. The players really wanted to give it back to them.”
By ending the NHL’s winter, finally, consider that mission accomplished.