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Monday, Sep 24, 2018
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‘This looks bleak.’ Game 7 loss short circuits Lightning fans

TAMPA ó Nick Genovese was anxious.

The 21-year-old from Land OíLakes had come to Thunder Alley outside Amalie Arena hoping to see the Tampa Bay Lightning triumph over the Washington Capitals in Wednesday nightís Eastern Conference winner-take-all Game 7.

At stake: Tampa Bayís third trip to the Stanley Cup final.

But then the Caps took a 3-0 lead by the end of the second period.

The Boltsí once-brilliant season was headed for a painful, wrenching end.

"Itís been rough," Genovese said. "This looks bleak to say the least."

THE END: Lightningís season ends one win short of Stanley Cup final with 4-0 loss to Capitals

Adding insult to injury, it started to rain. Lightning fever was now literally and figuratively doused. Fans in Thunder Alley folded up their chairs and joined the growing exodus of fans exiting Amalie Arena.

Not everyone gave up hope.

Juan Aponte, 31, of Tampa and his daughters. Jasinya, 13, and Elauni, 14, stayed to the bitter end of what was a 4-0 loss.

"You have to," Aponte said. "Youíve got to go through the good and the bad."

Then Tampa Bayís wild ride through the NHL playoffs officially ended. The Game 7 loss deflated the 19,092 fans inside the arena and the thousands more who watched outside on two large screens in Thunder Alley.

Others, though, were buoyed by the Lightningís turnaround this season. Tampa Bay went from a team that missed last seasonís playoffs to one that went 54-23 this season, winning the most games in franchise history and the most by any NHL team this season.

Chatham Van Vanbastelaar, 29, of Tampa, stayed in his chair, under a rain parka until the final horn sounded on the Thunder Alley screens.

"Great season. Outstanding," he said. "Weíll be back next year. Canít wait."

Optimism filled the air hours before the puck dropped. Six die-hard fans waited for Gate C to open, waiting to get in.

For Thomas Schooley, 40, of Seminole, itís a pregame tradition with meaning.

"Iíve got to be the first one in," Schooley said.

In the first two games against the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference final, he wasnít the first in. And what happened to the Lightning?

"They lost," Schooley said. "In Game 5, I was first and we won."

His fellow die-hards ó Schooley Ginger Barron, 36; Serena DíSouza, 35; Adrian DíSouza, 41; Stephanie Llanes, 44; and Nicole Vliet, 35 ó live all over central Florida and sit all over the arena.

Gathering together hours before the gate opens is what unites them. Theyíre also united in a Facebook group "Thunderbolts" created two years ago by Schooley. It has 2,600 members, but is closed to "trash-talking" fans from other teams.

Barron had "good butterflies" two hours before the puck dropped.

"I havenít vomited," Schooley said. "Thatís a good sign."

Across Channelside Drive, at Fergís Live, Michelle Peatee, 34, Jeremy Kephart, 38 and Rob Finch, 40, were standing in the packed bar drinking a bucket of Bud Lite before gametime.

The St. Petersburg residents said the Lightning werenít just Tampaís team.

"We love them over in St. Pete," said Kephart. "There are watch parties everywhere."

In the last of more than a dozen rows of folding chairs set up in front of the projection area in Thunder Alley outside the arena, Tampaís Candace Mills celebrated her 21st birthday with her mother, Avlyn.

It was the first trip to Thunder Alley for the Mills. Candace Mills, wearing Lightning earrings, enjoyed the festive atmosphere, DJ and food.

"This is exciting," she said. "Itís hard to believe itís a Wednesday night."

By 7:20 p.m. Thunder Alley was jammed full of blue and white clad fans as were nearby bars. Fans streamed out of streetcars on Channelside Drive.

"Go Bolts!" screamed one burly middle-aged man clad in a Vasilevsky jersey who only identified himself as "Brandon Jack:"

"Címon Tampa, letís go!"

Maybe next season.

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