TAMPA — If the Tampa Bay Lightning can overcome a 2-game deficit to the Washington Capitals and take a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference final, then Deborah Schmeltzer can definitely drive across the Howard Frankland Bridge through a driving rainstorm to watch Monday night’s Game 6.
But then the 55-year-old Pinellas Park resident has been following the Lightning from the start — 1992 to be precise.
"I’m here because we’re winning the Eastern Conference championship tonight," she said, "and I want to be a part of it."
If that is indeed the Lightning’s fate, she’ll have to wait until Wednesday to be a part of it. The Capitals prevailed 3-0, forcing a winner-take-all Game 7.
Still, when the puck dropped for Game 6 she sat with fingers crossed, in a folding chair on the grass between puddles, one of hundreds of fans who braved the pouring — then drizzling, then pouring again — rain at the official watch party in Curtis Hixon Park.
The party started at 6 p.m., and despite the rain about 100 showed up. But as the rain subsided the crowds started trickling in. The emcee pleaded with the crowd to text their friends and get them down there and help "pack the park."
And they did, gathering downtown with umbrellas, ponchos and chairs — no blankets. Some tossed footballs and others played on an enlarged, hockey version of the classic arcade game skee-ball while listening to Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London and Outkast’s Roses as they waited for the puck to drop at 8 p.m. and watch the game on three giant screens.
Noisy blue glow sticks were handed out. Once night fell, the whole park appeared to blink to unison.
Steve Bruseski, 53, and his 22-year-old son Joseph had prime seats on a wooden pavilion above the hockey skee-ball, positioned so nobody would block their view. The only downside was they were occasionally spritzed with water when kids flicked their hockey sticks below.
They are "die-hard" New York Ranger fans, since the elder Bruseski grew up on Long Island. But with the Lightning’s acquisition of ex-Rangers like J.T. Miller and Ryan Callahan, he said, Tampa Bay has become "New York Rangers-South."
The pair has been all-in on the Lightning this playoff season, having gone to every home game this playoff season. But they weren’t rooting for a Game 7
"(Winning) at home would be nice," he said, but a Game 7 is "a toss up."
"Don’t give any confidence back," he said. "We’ll take Game 1 of the Stanley Cup instead."
Not to be outdone, Schmeltzer said she’s been to all the watch parties this postseason. Sometimes she goes with her sister, sometimes with coworkers, sometimes alone, like on Monday. But she’s always there.
"Every single time, every game," she said. "You can’t stop me."
Her Lightning fandom came easily to her.
"I’m Canadian," she said. "It’s in my blood."
She grew up in Apsley, Ontario, about 200 miles north of Toronto, and was a Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers fan. But then she moved to the bay area, signed the original petition to bring a hockey team here and has been a Lightning fan since the franchise’s very first days in St. Petersburg’s ThunderDome (now called Tropicana Field.)
Hopes were high for the Lightning across the bay area before the game, especially within the inner sanctum of U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base.
Army Gen. Joseph Votel told the Tampa Bay Times that (of course) he was rooting for the Lightning.
"They are the only team I know that’s still in the playoffs, " the CentCom commander said. "I think they are a great story. I think they are going all the way and we wish them the best.
After watching the Capitals manhandle the Lightning and jump out to a 2-0 lead, Tampa Bay fans had already started heading home before the final horn sounded. Then Washington scored a late empty-net goal.
For some, the emotions, and the uncertainty about the Lightning’s future, weighed heavily upon them.
"Pretty heartbroken at this point," said Ashleigh Cambbell, 27, of Jacksonville, who was in town visiting her boyfriend, Myke Miller, 32, of Tampa.
"Game 7, you don’t know which it’s going to go," he said. "You have a chance to end it, you need to end it."
But Miller said he was confident the Bolts will pull it together Wednesday, when the team will be back in front of its home crowd at Amalie Arena:
> Times staff writer Howard Altman contributed to this story. Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or [email protected] Follow @ByJoshSolomon. >