TAMPA - With the stands swarmed in a sea of blue jerseys, a hockey-thirsty crowd found the quench it longed to taste.
After a four-month hiatus due to a labor dispute, NHL hockey returned to Tampa on Saturday night as the Lightning embraced the home fans with an electrifying 6-3 season-opening victory against the Washington Capitals in front of a standing-room-only crowd that surpassed the 19,204 capacity at The Forum.
Marty St. Louis scored a pair of goals — including the game-winner in the third period — and added an assist, while captain Vinny Lecavalier and rookie Cory Conacher each had a goal and an assist.
New goaltender Anders Lindback stopped 27 shots — 16 in the first period — to win in his Tampa Bay debut, while defenseman Eric Brewer scored twice.
The win capped an emotional night as Tampa Bay celebrated the start of its 20th anniversary season and was welcomed back following the lockout by a rowdy bunch in blue.
“You do want to please your fans. They have been waiting so long and we’ve stated things in the newspaper and on the radio, and what we did before the game,’’ Lightning head coach Guy Boucher said. “It’s all about the fans, and the players really wanted to give it back to them. When I look at what’s happened in the last week (with the fans returning), people around here bought into these players and the organization and it was really a dear will of ours to give it back to them today. Not next week or in two weeks or three weeks. We wanted to do that (Saturday).’’
The fans were rewarded, although it took a bit of time to get there.
The Lightning looked out of sorts in the opening portions of the game, taking three penalties in the opening 6-plus minutes. And despite taking a lead at 6:24 of the first on a Brewer shot from the point, Washington had control of the game and tied it on the first of two Joel Ward goals.
By the end of the first period, Tampa Bay had a 2-1 lead despite being outshot 17-8 in the first period.
“We took some penalties, but everybody just stayed with it, and the goaltending was just fantastic,’’ Brewer said. “He kind of saved us there.’’
By the second period, the Lightning started to shake off the rust from a long layoff, controlling good portions of the period and maintaining offensive-zone possession. But the score was tied after two periods as the Capitals scored twice to pull even, the tying goal coming with 1:45 left as St. Louis lost Wojtek Wolski down the slot as the Washington forward came from behind to put in a rebound of Mike Riberio’s shot.
St. Louis made up for the mistake, however, as the often-sluggish power play from last year came up with a huge goal when St. Louis took a Steven Stamkos feed at the top of the slot to bury a one-timer at 4:57 of the third for a 5-on-3 power play goal.
Conacher made it a 5-3 game as he raced down the left wing to take a pass from Teddy Purcell — who had three assists — for his first career goal.
“Purcell set me up with a very nice pass there,’’ Conacher said. “Hopefully we can get more wins and I can get some more goals.’’
Whether it was being in better-than-expected shape after a six-day training camp, or finding some quick chemistry as the coaching staff hoped by taking the team out of town for four days earlier in the week, Tampa Bay looked stronger and stronger as the game went on.
“For the first game, there are obviously some things we want to improve upon, but our power play came through for us tonight, especially in the third. We capitalized on our chances, and guys never gave up,’’ Stamkos said.
“They came back every time to make it 3-3 and we stuck with it, so that’s a big first win to boost our confidence.’’
Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa Bay Lightning return with win against Washington Capitals