TAMPA (WFLA) – This year’s road to the Stanley Cup for the defending Stanley Cup champions Tampa Bay Lightning sounds much more like seasons past before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unlike last year when the Bolts won the cup in the Canadian bubble, fans no longer need to be the “Distant Thunder.”
“The crowd is hyped tonight,” Brandon Markus said. “Everybody is hyped in the arena. It’s going crazy here.”
Markus was one of the 9,000 fans allowed in Amalie Arena Thursday night after the team bumped up capacity to about 47 percent for the playoffs.
Even though there are still empty seats, longtime season ticket holder Ann Beattie said she could feel the difference from the bigger crowd.
“Oh man, its so much better then when it was just like 4-thousand people cause now you can hear everybody yelling and screaming,” she said.
In front of a home playoff crowd for the first time since April 12, 2019, the Lightning fell behind 2-0 in the first period, before storming back with five goals in the second.
“I’m feeling confident,” Markus said. “Let us dig a hole, then we’re gonna climb out of it tonight.”
Unfortunately, the Florida Panthers managed to force overtime and won Game 3 by a final score of 6-5. The Bolts still lead the seven-game series 2 games to 1.
The Bolts have teamed up with AdventHealth to vaccinate their fans at the first two home playoff games.
This Saturday fans with a ticket for Game 4 or one of the gameday parties can get a shot in their arm starting at 10:30 a.m. through the end of the first intermission.
Even when they couldn’t be at the game because of pandemic restrictions, Tampa Bay sports fans have had plenty to cheer about this past year.
“Between the Bucs winning the Super Bowl and the Lightning, it’s a great community here in Tampa and hopefully we can win it again,” Markus said.
The energy from the home crowd Thursday is a reminder just how much this community loves its two-time Stanley Cup Champion hockey team.
“I’m from up north, but didn’t think the Sunshine State would be a hockey mecca,” Beattie said, “but we are.”