Blizzard hockey in Ottawa

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Canadian Tire Centre on March 14, 2017, right before a blizzard would batter the arena and region.

Last week, I marked off my first visit to a Canadian NHL arena, and why not do it during Canada’s 150th anniversary, during the week of the Stanley Cup’s 125th birthday, in the country’s capital?

I was a bit brave decided to go to a Ottawa Senators vs Tampa Bay Lightning game alone as a Bolts fan … on the glass. I figured it would be harmless because there would probably 10 people wearing Bolts jerseys in the Canadian Tire Centre (or the CTC as the locals call it).

I was right there’d be no harm, but I didn’t expect people to not engage with me. In any fashion. More on that in a few minutes.

The CTC is nearing the end of its life with the organization eyeing construction of a downtown arena in the LeBreton Flats neighborhood, hoping it to open in 2021. So, it was good for once to see an arena on its way out before it’s gone. I’ve been able to do so with Joe Louis Arena eight years ago, Mellon Arena around the same time frame but haven’t been so lucky with Nassau Coliseum, Rexall Place, Meadowlands and if you’re being picky include Philips Arena  (RIP Atlanta Thrashers).

Cosmetically, it looks fine. Large seating bowl, good sight lines, interesting choices for restaurants and smart construction of said restaurants considering the layout of the narrow concourse. The five-year-old HD scoreboard looked great when it worked (it crashed during the game intro) but that’s where the compliments stop.

Let’s start with getting to the arena. I’ve heard and read that the parking lot can be a nightmare to get into and out of with the game-day traffic, so get there early. I decided on a fantastic option instead, of going to Don Cherry’s Sports Grill in Kanata. You buy a meal, you get a ticket for a free shuttle to and from the game. That eliminates the headache of parking, paying for parking and battling traffic. The food and atmosphere is fantastic and feels authentically “Grapes.” Note that because of Grapes’ history with Budweiser, he only offers those beers on draft but you can get just about anything in a bottle.

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Inside Don Cherry’s Sports Grill in Kanata, Ontario.

I should note that on this day of the game, March 14, a nor’easter was blowing in dumping a foot of snow on the region. Just another reason to take the shuttle. Despite missing the warm-ups for the game, the shuttle’s advantages of avoiding traffic and the parking lots outweigh your desire to settle in to the arena early.

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A view from my seat in Section 102 Row A

(It still took me over an hour to get back to my hotel in Gatineau after the game. That’s after the bus dropped us off at the bar. Walls of snow blowed across the slushy, snowy highway. It’s normally a 20-minute drive but you had no option than to take it slow if you wanted to live.)

Walking toward the arena, a covered walkway partially exposed to the elements provided protection from the wind, but with all the snow blowing in, it felt like walking across a beach trying to see a hockey game. The final 10 meters when the walkway ended was a gauntlet as the wind pushed against you, really testing your strength to see a game. However, kudos to those people I saw make a 2 kilometer walk from the Fairfield Inn to the arena in that brutal storm to watch the Senators.

Getting through security and the line for the ticket to be scanned was a breeze. However, it looked like that once you enter your concourse, you can’t leave and go elsewhere in the arena to explore. I should have asked during intermission but didn’t want to risk it. Unlike other arenas, there aren’t connections past the gate to the upper concourses from the lower concourse.

Instead, the escalators are in the lobby area. The design makes the lower concourse feel claustrophobic before the game when a lot of people pack into a tight area–you don’t have much room wall-to-wall. Want to walk the whole way around? Not unless you’re a member of Club Bell. The arena has a 100-level club section that prevents access. I’ve been in other arenas like Consol Energy Center and BB&T Center (which is only two years younger and also seen renovations) that’s designed its 100-level club sections in a way where you can still walk a full circle around the arena but has the club section pushed back where the seats are. I imagine wider concourses and a better club area solution will be in the offering for the new arena.

When I made it to my seat, I settled in for the game. Right on the glass where the Bolts shoot twice. Say, a fellow wearing a white Lightning jersey should get some ribbing, right?

Nope. While nobody poured beer down my back, nobody gave me a hard time, or even joked. Actually, nobody spoke to me at all. It was very, very weird not to be engaged. Even attending as  Bolts fan at a Pittsburgh game people talked to me and asked questions. I just got weird stares.

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Sitting in the first row in the corner means the ref gets in the way.

To my left, a teenager was there with his dad. Clearly the kid was embarrassed by his dad, who was on his cell phone for a good portion of the game. Then come the third period, did the unspeakable. He was one of those guys who while talking on his phone, waved his hand frantically  as play came to our end, just for his friend to see him–or his arm–on TV. This went on for half the period until his son finally told him to stop. I’m sure the guys behind him were pissed. It was distracting for me and he was to my left. See, there are people in Canada who can’t act like they’ve been there before.

Despite the silence toward me, it was neat eavesdropping on people speaking both French and English in this bi-lingual capital as well as the in-game announcements being made in both languages. Yet the presentation lacked in engagement. No chants to get the crowd going or anything. The fans finally took to themselves to get a small chant going in the third but it was too little too late.

The game itself was a sleeper for the most part with Mike Condon making some terrific and lucky saves for the Sens. It wasn’t until halfway through the third when the pace and hitting really picked up in the 1-1 game, then heading into overtime when Victor Hedman sealed the win for the Bolts.

If I would go again, I would definitely sit in a higher row. Do not buy seats on the glass at the CTC, at least in the corners. I decided to grab one because they are a tremendous deal compared to other arenas on the resale market. A front-row seat was only $30 more than what I’d pay in the upper bowl at Verizon Center. But the inconvenience got to be a little much. The first row sets back about a foot from the glass, so in between each whistle people walk in front of you to go in between sections. That got old when this family who was split up across two sections kept swapping seats and any other person wanting to cut across to this cut-out section in 101 for drinks. Plus, the distance from the glass didn’t make being in the front row as special. The best arenas have your knees pressed against the boards and your face can kiss the glass at your own risk.

Would I return to the CTC? Yes, but I’d sit in a different section and row plus choose a game with an opponent people would get riled up over. I would still take in a pre-game meal and take the Don Cherry shuttle. Plus, I’d convince friends to come with me to make it a social affair.

IMG_2371Whether it’s the CTC or the new arena, I definitely need to get back to Ottawa for a game. The city is beautiful and I couldn’t fit everything in during my stay. Part of that I blame on my back that gave out right before vacation. That didn’t make it fun or easy to walk around the city or during the tour of Parliament. It also prevented me from finding an outdoor rink to skate around. The weather from the previous weeks also thawed out the Rideau Canal and a nearby skating trail, melting my vacation plans.

Basically, I have to schedule for the dead of winter at the end of January/beginning of February to try to avoid a freak thaw like this year’s. See you next year, Ottawa?


NHL Arenas I’ve Seen a NHL Game In

Canadian Tire Centre – March 14, 2017 (Senators 1, Lightning 2 OT. Victor Hedman scores in OT to snap Senators six-game win streak. Kyle Turris and Bobby Ryan returned from injury for Sens. Lightning played without injured centers Tyler Johnson, Cedric Paquette and Vlad Namestnikov. Also, Ryan Callahan out for the season. Steven Stamkos nears return but misses game from long-term knee injury. Game played during a blizzard.)

Consol Energy Center – Feb. 20, 2016 (Penguins 2, Lightning 4. Steven Stamkos scores 300th career goal. From ESPN: “At 26 years, 13 days old, Stamkos is the ninth-youngest player to score 300 goals, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He’s the second-youngest active player to get there after Ovechkin, who was 25 years, 200 days old when he scored No. 300 on April 5, 2011. Stamkos also is the first player from the 2008 NHL Draft to reach the mark; he has 162 more goals than Edmonton Oilers forward Jordan Eberle, the next-closest player from his draft class.

Lightning’s first regular season win in Consol Energy Center.)

Nationwide Arena –  Jan. 2, 2016 (Blue Jackets 5, Capitals 4 SO. Blue Jackets goalie Anton Forsberg replaced an injured Curtis McElhinney in OT. According to Elias Sports Bureau, Forsberg is the first NHL goalie to earn his first win in a game while making his debut in overtime.)

BankAtlantic Center/BB&T Center – 2012-13 (multiple/ first game: Panthers 1, Capitals 2 on Feb. 17, 2012. First time Tomas Vokoun played against Panthers in Sunrise with the Caps. Gordie Howe in attendance. Music cut out during anthem.)

Tampa Bay Times Forum/Amalie Arena– 2012-2014 (multiple/ first game: Lightning 4, Capitals 3 OT on Jan. 31, 2012 (Stamkos scores in OT. Ovechkin missed game for suspension. Backstrom was also out for a concussion.)

RBC Center – Oct. 12, 2011 (Hurricanes 3, Bruins 2/Tomas Kaberle notches an assist for his first point with the Hurricanes after winning a Cup with the Bruins the season before.)

Mellon Arena – March 28, 2010 (Penguins 5, Maple Leafs 4 SO/Phil Kessel’s 30th goal for the Leafs was the first 30-goal season for a Toronto player since Mats Sundin in 2007-08)

TD Garden -Dec. 30, 2010 (Bruins 4, Thrashers 0/Tuuka Rask’s third-career shutout)

Joe Louis Arena – March 17, 2009 (Red Wings 3, Flyers 2/Red Wings score three consecutive goals/Kris Draper’s 1000th game)

United Center – Oct. 23, 2005 (Blackhawks 4, Wild 2/Duncan Keith’s and Rene Bourque’s first career NHL goal/Brian Rolston’s 250th game)

MCI Center/Verizon Center – Pretty much every year since 1998 (multiple/ first game: Capitals 2, Rangers 3 on Jan. 3, 1998/ Dan Cloutier’s NHL debut with the New York Rangers)

US Airways Arena/Capital Centre -Nov.9, 1996 (Capitals 3, Rangers 2)

 

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Being the Thunder in the Burg

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The last time I saw a hockey game at the Consol Energy Center was 2011 when the Hershey Bears beat the Wilkes-Barre Penguins 1-0. Somehow Braden Holtby stopped this puck. (By Charles Schelle)

I’m dusting off the blog for a game I’m pumped to see.

The Tampa Bay Lightning will visit the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday at Consol Energy Center, and it will be my first time seeing a NHL game in that arena.

And even more special, Steven Stamkos has a chance to pot his 300th goal.

There’s so much to like about this game.

Stamkos vs. Crosby; Bishop vs. Fleury; Hedman vs. Letang; Kessel vs. Kucherov

And it’s a 12:30 p.m., game so I get to enjoy my day!

Thankfully I’m seeing the Bolts as a visitor at somewhere other than the Verizon Center, where I root for my longtime team in D.C., but there’s a slight sense of guilt as you favor one child over another.

But the oldest has yet to succeed.

So, part of this visit is as I mentioned above, officially marking off the Consol Energy Center on my NHL arena list. I saw the Hershey Bears take on the Baby Pens there in 2011 and a NCAA game the same day, but I can’t count those in good standing with the standards I made up. Even if they were lower level seats.

I managed to see the Pens and Maple Leafs in Mellon Arena before that was demolished, though.

As much as I dislike the Pens, I vividly remember details of the arena because I was so impressed with it. The high school jerseys, the Lemieux display, the Captain Morgan lounge, the great views and that they not only serve LaBatt Blue on tap, but the Tim Horton’s cart has Timbits. I got to have my creature comforts, man.

If you see a guy in a white Bolts jersey in 203, A right on the aisle, that’s me. That’s upper level center ice–perfect view.

If, by chance, you’re a Bolts fan visiting Pittsburgh for the first time, here are some recommendations of places to visit or try:

Take a ride on the Duquesne Incline. It’s an old vertical passenger car used to bring people from top the hill on Mount Washington down to the South Side. Spectacular view on clear days.

  • Visit the National Aviary. That’s a fancy word for a bird zoo, but there are some cool ass birds here. Penguin aren, natch. But there’s a room where a bunch of tropical birds will just fly everywhere around you, and if you’re in luck, they might shit on you. There’s also a new California Condor exhibit that’s up and running.
  • Get holy drunk at Church Brew Works. It’s a brewery inside a historic church, whose architecture was preserved to the point it won a preservation award. The stills are in the monastery, they have a great food menu and you can take a growler to go. There’s just so much to take in here. The confessional as a merchandise booth. The bar top that’s an old pew. The flights of beer! This place always seems to be busy. Good luck if you can find parking in the neighborhood.
  • Have some brats and beers at Hofbrauhaus. There used to be just three in the U.S., modeled after the Munich beer house of the same name, from the beermaker Hofbrau. They recently opened up shop in St. Petersburg at the old Tampa Bay Times cafeteria building, so a little less special now they expanded, but come here for a great time and some polka music. The neighborhood as other shops and restaurants to check out, too.

Enjoy the Steel City and the game and Be The Thunder!

Post-Game Edit: 

They took out Tim Horton’s and replaced all the carts with Dunkin’ Donuts! The travesty!

I will say this, though. The configuration of the DD cart is superior. You line up, pick up a cup and pump your own coffee out and press for half and half or cream and you can open up a little case with a variety of full-size donuts.

From what I recall from my single visit, Timmy’s only had Timbits available. In Tampa, that cart only had coffee or hot chocolate. Both would be served in fabulous overpriced souvenir cups. DD just had your standard, affordable but environmentally insensitive styrofoam cup.

That didn’t go quite as planned

I can take a hint from the universe.

Unfortunately the nudge didn’t come until the first period of Game 6.

OK, maybe that was actually the first period of Game 5 when Ben Bishop made a bonehead play leading to an empty net goal by Patrick Sharp. I already booked my flight before that game. It was too late.

As I waited in the terminal at the Hagerstown Regional Airport, I watched the first period and a half of Game 6. My flight was already delayed by two hours. There was no way I’d make it for any watch party and Amalie Arena already announced they weren’t letting anymore people through the doors.

Steven Stamkos dashed in on a breakaway and didn’t have enough moves to beat Corey Crawford. What was worse was that when he couldn’t coax himself to corral the puck, back up and roof it. He was too in-tight and just flubbed it against the pad.

It was done by then and the score was still 0-0.

Just before the plane lifted off the runway, I checked the score one last time. 0-1 Blackhawks in the second.

The WiFi-less flight left me wondering what is happening. As soon as we touched down in St. Petersburg, the alerts popped up. Blackhawks are Stanley Cup Champions. Duncan Keith is Conn Smythe Winner. Ben Bishop has a torn groin. Tyler Johnson has a broken wrist. And Tampa Bay had shattered dreams.

Health and luck are big parts of winning a championship and when you’re battling a two-time Cup champion, so is experience.

There’s not much I would change on the Lightning’s end. I would have isolated the team in a hotel at home, adjusted the power play with personnel and shuffled the lines more.

But most of all, I would have found a way to take players to the box. There wasn’t anything of significance between the whistles. A certain amount of gamesmanship was missing not having a fourth line player taking Toews are Kane to the box for roughing for two minutes.

There wasn’t enough nasty to warrant a fight. We weren’t even in the same galaxy of having a Lecavalier-Iginla type bout. I enjoyed the frenetic pace but there wasn’t enough boom with the pow.

A Stamkos-Toews fight would have absolutely turned the series even if Stamkos would have lost.

Next year, the Bolts will be filled with more skill and speed. Vlad Namestnikov is likely to be here full-time while Brenden Morrow coming back is iffy. Jon Drouin will see more ice time, too, but God help us if he gets gritty. We’re all just hoping for five more pounds of muscle.

The blueline is pretty gritty and no matter who steps in from within the organization, that won’t change.

Aside from all the black-and-blue business, the Lightning need to get Stamkos a winger. Maybe his defensive play improved without having an elite passer like Marty St. Louis by his side. Who knows. It didn’t look like Drouin and Stamkos clicked right away but they weren’t lined up much either in practice. He could be the answer.

Things were starting to click with Valteri Filpulla and Alex Killorn but more so for the other two players. It opened up more opportunities for Stamkos but he couldn’t bury them yet, it lumped two of the better centermen on one line.

Stamkos-Killorn-Callahan was Stammer’s most frequent line during the regular season while Callahan-Filpulla-Stamkos was the second most.  Did wonders for Ryan Callahan tying a career high in points being in a Mike Knuble-like situation but you still need one more finesse player on that line. In most cases that was Fil, but he needs to help spread out the offense on the other lines.

Something’s gotta give and we have the offseason to dream what it’s going to be.

Then the regular to test it out. And the playoffs where things better be damned solidified and perfected.

See you soon Tampa

If my flight doesn’t get delayed anymore, I’ll probably be in a St. Pete watering hole catching the conclusion of Game 6.

I’m going to be glued to my iPad on the plane watching the Lightning preventing an early end to the season so I can be part of something special: Game 7 in Tampa for the Stanley Cup.

I don’t want a touchdown at PIE to lead to a letdown when I hit the road to find the nearest TV. Hell, that just mean going over to the Clearwater Ice Arena just to see the end of the game. 

Tampa Bay doesn’t deserve disappointment on the national stage. The city and region, frankly have been resilient over the last six years, watching home values finally climb back after a nasty housing collapse. Seeing hope being built from Channelside, north to a new ice rink complex in Wesley Chapel, bustling retail and amateur sports boom in Sarasota to the south and craft beer breweries bubbling up in every neighborhood in between. 

Tampa didn’t arrive in 2004. Metaphorically, that championship crowned a race to the top by everyone chasing the dollar before the party came crashing down hard. It’s appropriate that the lockout wiped away the following season. And it only got worse in terms of diminishing results for the Lightning to a point where new ownership came in to make it seemed like Florida Man was running the team’s news ticker.

Now, you have everything in place that makes Tampa an exciting hockey market, place to live and work with hopefully a fully realized arena district.

I owe it to the Lightning for making hockey exciting for me again. When I moved away from Maryland, my frustration with the Caps were at an all-time high. I watched a Lightning team in transition that reminded me a lot of the Caps when Glen Hanlon was writing his own pink slip as George McPhee stocked the organization with enough talent to win two Calder Cups in Hershey in short time thanks to an up-and-coming coach who could coach goals to pour out of his roster. 
Guy Boucher was in a similar position with a defensive system that also grew old and in came Calder Cup prospects and eventually Jon Cooper. The key difference is that Cooper quickly learned he needed defensive adjustments and having a veteran of an associate coach like Rick Bowness sped up that learning curve as well as having guys from Andreychuck to  Yzerman supporting the organization.

I don’t have tickets for Game 7, nor could I afford them. Would I do anything to get in Amalie Arena for free? Of course but being in the streets of Tampa to celebrate, to be in the moment is all I’m asking for. 

Thats all we should ever want, too: 

Be in the moment. Be in the clouds.

Be the thunder.

Watching the Bolts’ Stanley Cup Playoff Run From Afar

Seeing the Tampa Bay Lightning’s continued Game 7 heroics during this year’s playoffs has been nothing short of inspiring.

It’s a feel-good story that hurts not to be in Tampa Bay to experience the run. I was kidding myself when I moved back to Maryland thinking the  Washington Capitals would make a deep run. Not just by looking at the standings, but the visual test showed that the Bolts were clearly the better of the two teams I’ve come to support.

You always hear about the Florida transplant sports fan conundrum—how much do you weigh balancing the support between the teams you grew up with from home and the ones that are in your new home city. But nobody talks about how it is to leave your adopted team.

You go back home (ish) and hope for the best, but you look over your shoulder and have that feeling that you just left the best place to be.

In terms of living a hockey life, somehow it got worse moving from Florida back to Maryland. I’m no longer 30 minutes away from the closest ice rink—now an hour through rolling hills and mountains. I’m no longer an hour drive to see NHL hockey where I can pull up 100 yards from the arena and pay $4 to park on the street. Instead, it’s a 90-minute drive to a Metro station and a 45-minute ride to Verizon Center or instead, a two-hour drive to Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh to see the Bolts and Caps stop by next season.

The worst is moving in the middle of a season when you see that the Lightning is going to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Here’s the uplifting part: I made a promise before I quit my job in Bradenton that I’d visit my friends on one of two conditions. Either the Washington Caps meet the Tampa Bay Lightning in the playoffs or the Lightning reach the Stanley Cup Finals.

I have to live up to my promise, even if it’s for a day, and it’ll be great to get back in such a short time. (And hey, I still have my Disney seasonal pass that I can use until August.)

Will I be able to get to see a game in person? No, and I knew it’d be a long shot. The Lightning restricted sales on Ticketmaster to those with a Florida billing address (I already switched over three months ago) and out of curiosity I checked to see what the cheapest ticket would be. All the bottom two or three tiers were gone. I’d have to pony up $347. That’s on top of a flight, rental car and hotel to get there.

When I get down there, I’ll be there for either Game 6 or 7 depending how tonight’s Ducks-Blackhawks game shakes out. You just know this thing ain’t going to be done in five games.

To be there on Channelside Plaza with thousands of other fans watching the game outside for a chance of the ultimate victory would be just as much of a thrill.

Not all of us are fortunate enough to be part of something this special, even a Stanley Cup Game. And we all have to accept that.

Instead, we have to be there in spirit, be the best fan you can be and of course, Be The Thunder.

Lightning, Panthers could meet in playoffs for first time if cats keep pace

Aaron Ekblad skates with the Florida Panthers during a preseason game Oct. 4 against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena.

Aaron Ekblad skates with the Florida Panthers during a preseason game Oct. 4 against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena.

Are we looking at a possible Sunshine Series in the first round?

At the halfway point of the NHL season, both of Florida’s NHL teams are doing better than expected and could end up with a rendezvous in the playoffs for the first time against each other.

The Florida Panthers sit just out of the eighth spot, three points behind the Boston Bruins who is on a three-game win streak after a recent tumble. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Lightning keeps trading off in the top three spots in the conference.

That Governors Cup to create a cross-state rivalry might mean something next season if the Bolts and Panthers are able to meet in the playoffs this year.

The Panthers are finding themselves in a lot of what’s called 50-50 games. The Capitals’ short tenure under Dale Hunter was known for this but the Panthers are having more spurts of offense.

For the most part, they’re playing tight, trapping defense and aren’t manufacturing a lot of goals. Their 96 goals for is tied for third lowest in the conference. The New Jersey Devils, who sit 14th, have scored the same amount. The Panthers’ 103 goals allowed is fourth best in the conference behind the Rangers, Canadiens and Penguins. Overall, sixth best in the league. Roberto Luongo finally has a defensively sound team in front of him.

If the Panthers are able to trade for a top-six scorer, I would bet on them making a second-half surge that can sneak them into that eighth spot.

Back in Tampa, the Lightning’s 140 goals scored leads the league but its goals against is middle of the pack at 111 tied for 12th in the league with Boston. That’s also seventh in the East.

That in itself would be a fascinating series if came to a head—hockey’s highest scoring team against a grinding team that allows some of the fewest.

Back to that Governors Cup—a regular season bragging rights trophy that helps support youth hockey. The two teams square off against each other three times in the final two months of the season. Their only meeting this year was a 3-2 OT win by the Bolts on opening night. Those remaining games—especially the April 4 match that would be one of the final for both teams of the season—could help determine whether this Sunshine Series becomes a reality.

If the Panthers make it in the playoffs and the two teams meet in the first round, the cats have a chance to give the Bolts some fits. Even if that means Lightning fans make BB&T Center feel like another home game for the Bolts.

What the heck, Verizon Center?

IMG_2239I was able to get back to Maryland for a weekend recently and as part of my Winter Classic package I had a pair of tickets to catch the Bolts in D.C.

It’s been a couple of years since I caught the Caps in D.C. It’s been such a long 12 months that I don’t even think I caught a game when I was last home in December 2013. I’m pretty sure it was a Hershey Bears game instead.

I didn’t like what I found when I returned and made me realized how spoiled I am with the Tampa Bay Lightning as my Florida home team.

My sister Wendy decided to use the cool upgrade feature and get us into the lower bowl instead of sitting up in the 400s. Ah, I miss that wonderful view from the corner seeing everything down low and seeing the fortress-like concrete above the lodge seating where paper banners hang.

The in-game presentation and intro was top notch, something I always use as a measuring stick when attending games at Amalie Arena. The use of Grace Potter & the Nocturnals’ “The Lion The Beast The Beat” was phenomenal.

Now, Verizon Center’s always been loud but man, I felt like I was at a rock concert. It got a little overwhelming after awhile and I had to remember, was it always this loud? And this constant? There was never a let-up of music or something going on during breaks. I struggled to hear my sister right beside me sometimes.

But you know what? The crowd was into it, Sam the Horn Guy and Goat were in their element and the music was way better even though it was deafening. I just want a little less buttoned-up gee-golly presentation in Tampa. Greg Wolf does a great job, he just needs more from the arena and the presentation to help match the energy he wants.

What I was actually upset about was a bit of douchiness to the crowd that I don’t remember. There’s always an air of pretentiousness when you see guys coming in their suits from K Street or Capitol Hill roll in, but this was on the other side of the spectrum. So one drunk guy kept going “Hoooolltttbbyyyy! Youuuu’rrreee the man!!!” And every time the Lighting had the puck in the Caps’ defensive zone he kept pleading, loudly, “Geeeettt iiitttt oouuuttt! Cooommmeee on!”

Then some guy trade seats from the upper bowl with his brother directly behind me and the frat bro continues to chat up a conversation during play all during the second period about anything but hockey. Just kept going and going and going. When both of them were at it, I just shook my head and said “I don’t understand what is going on behind us right now.” The guy to my right understood and just laughed.

Then, during Backstrom’s hat trick goal, drunky mcdrunkerson spills his beer on the floor, all over my sister’s purse and another lady’s bag. Also, my throwing of my hat was futile and didn’t make it all the way and some guy just threw it again a few rows down. It wasn’t worth retrieving.

Combine all of that with the ride to and from. I used to not mind driving 50 minutes to the Shady Grove Metro station and then taking another 45-55 minutes to get to the Gallery Place stop. It’s about $9.30 for the fare and then another $8 for parking unless it’s a Saturday (as it was). Driving straight into DC isn’t bad on a Saturday night, about 90 minutes from Hagerstown, it’s just that parking is a pain in the ass in D.C., and starts out at $20 for event parking and up.

Back in Tampa, it takes me 60 to 70 minutes to drive from Sarasota and I park for $3 to $5 for a very short walk to the arena. And I’m home before midnight.

I don’t know if I’ll be moving back to Maryland but if I do, I’m sure as hell going to miss Amalie Arena. How that neighborhood is now won’t be like that for long. That cheap parking will soon be going anyway once Vinikville gets started on those sandlots. On-street parking may still be possible but probably not as close. Instead, there will be more parking garages to overpay at.

The yearning to be at a ton of Caps games that I had when I was in my twenties isn’t there between the expense and the toll to get there. I don’t think I’ll ever live inside the Beltway to make it ideal. At the same time, it makes Hershey Bears games that much more appealing as an alternative.

All of this will be moot in 12 days when I’ll see the Caps play outdoors at the Winter Classic. Save for a longer, more crowded Metro ride. And perhaps, a hangover.

The Lightning saw Eric Brewer’s best and worst

Count me as one of the fans that is disappointed to see Eric Brewer be shipped out of Tampa to Anaheim.

I liked the leadership he offered and what seemed to be a steady influence, at the same time there was always the feeling that there could be more. Now, he’s in the Bygone Bolts category joining Nate Thompson on the Ducks.

Once Jon Cooper came in and managed with minutes in tandem with associate coach Rick Bowness, Brewer’s game was more in control and seemed fresher. Those mistakes that would creep up, especially under Guy Boucher, were minimized.

Somehow this season, it went off the rails. When a veteran player like Brewer gets scratched he either can play worse because of his attitude or motivated to do better. I would want to believe that the more you play Brewer the better he would be this year but he’s only played six fewer games than Garrison, Carle and and Stralman this year.

His regular stat sheet appeared pretty good for this year compared to previous years but the advanced statistics show he was a train wreck this year.

Coaching staff and the front office told Tampa area media that Brewer said he wanted to play but he was controlled in how he was being scratched. Between the salary constraints and his horrible stats for this year, it was justified to move him now.

If his performance was better than what we’ll see below, then it would have been an attitude problem. Here’s a snippet of how Barry Trotz explained how well defenseman Jack Hillen was handling his 19 games being a healthy scratch this season and what happens if he wasn’t a good teammate:

“What happens if you don’t have the good attitude is you start bringing other players down,” Trotz had said, “and when you start bringing other players down around you, it’s time to move that player out, because there’s nothing good that can happen.”

Speaking of the Caps, Brooks Orpik is a lot like a now more expensive Eric Brewer—both heralded for intangibles, but in advanced stats, they aren’t all that great. Orpik’s tradeoff that keeps him going is his jarring hits and physical play. Brewer lacked that grit and jabs after the whistle that could have elevated his game and value that made have played in his favor to hang around.

Horribly advanced

Brewer’s Fenwick, which accounts for all shots directed to the net that weren’t blocked, was the worse in his career topping the year he was traded from the Blues to the Bolts. He gave up about 12 more shots than he directed, according to stats by War On Ice. For five-on-five play, his offensive zone starts were about even this season, at 2 percent, a total swing from the -4 percent last season, meaning he had more defensive zone starts.

Revisiting that 2011-12 season, Brewer’s offensive zone starts percentage was a whopping -20 percent, explaining why that year was so atrocious (and why Boucher screwed himself).

Play with the charts on War on Ice and you’ll see a lot of red for Brewer buried with this year at the bottom of the charts.

Here’s just one of them that shows he was doing pretty well last season and then fell off a cliff.

This chart shows how many shots he was either giving up or getting on net compared to the time on ice of his competition. Basically, he was giving up a lot more in a shorter time up against his competition. Just play around with the charts on War On Ice and none of them look great, but comparatively, he was a lot better last season than this. Somehow getting bumped down on the depth chart is affecting him more than what it should. If anything it ought to have a positive effect on his stats, similar to how Mike Green, an offensive defenseman, is doing better this year seeing weaker competition.

Courtesy of War On Ice

Courtesy of War On Ice

Traditional stat pack

Measuring other areas of his game, the Bolts also saw Brewer’s best.

During Brewer’s St. Louis days, he played on a lean team and if you look at his stat sheet, it looked horrible for a defenseman if you take a peek  at plus/minus. Folks, during his days in Tampa, he enjoyed the most number of plus seasons with any franchise he played for. Out of the parts of five seasons he spent with the Bolts, only one season, 2011-12, he was a minus player.

Look at that roster and you understand why. Brett Clark was a minus-26 and the rest of the cast was spare parts from Breden Mikkleson, Mike Commodore, Brian Lee and Bruno Gervais to Pavel Kubina, Matt Gilroy and Marc-Andre Bergeron who had 24 points in 43 games, enough to lead the defense corps in scoring in an 82-game season. That should tell you how bad that year was.

When Brewer left Tampa this year, he was plus-5 and had four assists in 17 games. That’s better than the minus players Radko Gudas and Mark Barberio (minus-2 each) and the goal and assist Gudas put up. Barberio is scoreless in his seven games.

Brewer was also averaging 22.7 shifts per game and 17:50 in ice time this season, about 20 seconds above his average last season with one fewer shift. Both of those numbers are way down from the 20 minutes and 27 shifts he averaged in the lockout shortened 2012-13—also the final season of Boucher.

Lightning in-game entertainment needs to help fans be louder

Despite having the Minnesota Wild in Amalie Arena, it was still a Saturday. And it was still a little too silent.

Save for a quick burst of all three goals scored in the second period and the flurry of saves made by Ben Bishop in the waning seconds of the game, Lighting fans were too quiet, myself included. Players might say they don’t pay attention to how many people show up for a game (OK, only Panthers players say this and lie) but they certainly feed off of a crowd’s energy.

What the issue is that the in-game entertainment lacks call to action. In between all the charity spotlights, ticket promotions and  kiss cams, the things that get the crowd going en masse aren’t there.

Instead of being led by the giant screen to chant “Let’s Go Bolts” or “Let’s Go Tampa” the crowd is simply told to “Make Some Noise.” Over and over and over again.

The Sticks Of Fire gang do their part in the upper bowl of the arena, but it doesn’t carry though in most instances and because of the complexity of the chants (or maybe length) they take some getting used to. (That and even when they shouted I still couldn’t make out everything they were saying across the way in Section 313.) The group is getting a lot of media attention, but it’s activation in arena hasn’t followed as much as it should and same goes for Facebook where the group has only 921 fans out of a Lightning fan base of tens of thousands. Shit, Sam The Horn guy—a man who solely blows a vuvuzela at the Verizon Center to elicit “Let’s Go Caps” has 3,292 followers on Twitter.

ESPN The Magazine praised the electrifying arena, but folks, there’s another level to get to. It needs to be much louder for longer and at points, deafening. I’m a little biased here being in plenty of games at the Verizon Center and my ears would ring.

Let’s talk solutions, shall we?

•Just get back to basics and start small. Lead us. Give us something to say. We need direction in a game with a lot going on. Go Bolts Go or Let’s Go Lightning. Something. What’s not working is overusing “Be The Thunder” as a rallying cry because it only works for the beginning of the game. Any other time, the call to action loses momentum. It’s not exactly something you can chant either because the fans are supposed to be the thunder. Yelling it doesn’t make any sense.

•Coming out of a commercial break, play some sort of short montage video to start a rally cry and get somebody well-loved from Tampa Bay and shout “Let’s Go Boooooooollllts.” Dick Vitale doesn’t have the energy in his video and just don’t get any politicians or bureaucrat in the video and we’ll be fine.

•Embrace the Sticks Of Fire chants. Feature them in the game, especially during if the game is scoreless or the Bolts are trailing, to get the energy up in the building. This can almost be like the “Unleash the Fury” moment that worked so well in the Verizon Center. (Certainly PA announcer Wes Johnson does his part when his head explodes each game.)

Start simple. Do “I believe that we will win” in the third period, with the camera on them to lead the way and have the words up on the screen. We all know you have the real estate to work with on that jumbotron. And then go from there. The Caps have set it up with both Sam and another guy called Goat, who has a strong set of chords where he will scream “Let’s Go Caps” and the entire arena can hear him and join in. The cameras typically show him once a game to get the crowd going now.

That should give the Lightning and fans a starting point. The team and fans are making strides to make it a hostile place for visiting teams, but there’s more to do. I can at least be thankful that we’ve moved away from a fiddler doing “Cotton Eyed Joe” every game.

Bolts are beautifully in sync

I caught my first regular season game this year in Tampa Saturday, albeit I switched to my hometown allegiance for the night rooting for my Caps.

It was futile as Washington lost, but I didn’t grow frustrated at the Caps despite their losing skid as much as I’ve become more impressed with this Lighting squad.

Watching pre-season, scrimmages and games on TV this year only tells so much. The takeaway came during a first period power play when Kucherov, Palat and I believe Namestnikov were regrouping for the breakout. They each hit their mark right on the hashmarks skating back, turning in sync to the left to head back up ice. You script these regroups and breakouts on a board and they never go as plan. Try to draw it up in NHL 15 and it doesn’t look as good.

Sitting three rows from the glass, the behind-the-net fadeaway pass to Kucherov was just as heart melting. If this was any other night rooting for the Bolts I would have gone out of my mind. That is a difficult move to actually pull off and for the goalie to bite on the move. Braden Holtby went with the option that Johnson would walk around and pass from the strong side or jam the puck in.

Hotlby had a goalie blind spot playing the angle like he did, but the other option would be to try to see from the far post, then leaving the near side open for Johnson to tap in. None of the Caps had Kucherov covered. Not even a stick was nearby to knock it away.

At 8-3-1 and playing what seems to be a man down every night, the Lightning are on a special run now. The Caps are in an early season spiral that I know will turn around.

The Bolts might see a four-game losing streak sometime this season, but I don’t see them losing too many consecutive games nor being inconsistent where stretches will go win-loss-win-loss-shootout loss, win, OT loss type of scenario.

Enjoy the great play as long as it continues.