Jeff Vinik giving the St Pete Times Forum a facelift for next season

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When Jeff Vinik bought the Tampa Bay Lightning from Len Barrie and Oren Koules, there was a serious need for an owner who would pour time, money, and energy into getting the franchise back on the path towards respectability. A great new general manager, a hotshot young coach, a few good moves, and a run to the Eastern Conference Finals later and the Lightning are regarded as one of the better teams in the East. What a difference 16 months can make. Now that Vinik’s team has made his mark on the league, he’s using his money to make a mark on the building his team plays in. Literally.

In February, the team announced a $35 million renovation project to give the St Pete Times Forum a much needed facelift. The 15-year-old building was ready for a little touching up; but instead ownership is going all out and giving the building a complete makeover. Anything worth doing is worth doing right. From the St. Petersburg Times, Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke shows exactly where the priorities for the renovated building lie as they tore out eight luxury suits to open up the concourse for fans:

“That was a very challenging decision because ultimately, for our long-term viability, we’ve got to make sure we draw more revenue. But we felt the building in some ways needed a soul.”

(snip)

Re: new seats in arena: “It was the more expensive option, but at the end of the day it really underscored for all of us how serious this guy [owner Jeff Vinik] was in serving our fans. It was a six-figure decision, and he was right. I think it was a moment many of us will remember for a long time, his jumping from seat to seat and saying, ‘This is more comfortable. This is the right thing to do.’ “

These are the kinds of things that will endear a billionaire owner to his team’s fanbase. The renovation project is something that is needed to maintain the building as a world-class venue, but it’s not something that Vinik needs to do to keep the Forum as an acceptable place to house the Lightning. Just look at Nassau Coliseum.

From all accounts he’s doing it the right way—rethinking the entire arena to make it a more distinctive place for the Lightning to call home. More importantly, he’s making the fan experience better for the 21,500 people who show up for a home game. The team is ripping out over 500 seats to install a huge pipe organ with a bar that will be one of the arena’s new distinguishing features. As said before, they tore out eight luxury suits so the concourse is opened up for a better fan experience. There will be new, more comfortable seats all over the arena and the sightlines will be reconfigured. The list goes on and on.

On top of the $35 million, Vinik is having one of the entrances rebuilt/reconfigured (West Plaza entrance) to give the arena a “grand entry” point to serve as the face of the building. Again, the new entrance will be fully funded by Vinik in order to make the arena the best possibly location for his team and their fans. A new entrance won’t translate to any more wins on the ice, it probably won’t help lure any free agents, and it certainly won’t help the ratings on television. It just makes the Forum a more appealing place for the Lightning fans.

The moves show that ownership is behind this team for the long-haul. In an environment where the Atlanta Thrashers move to Winnipeg, the Coyotes are in a state of flux, and a segment of NHL fans are calling complaining about just about every sunbelt team, the move is symbolic gesture of permanence. The financial commitment says, “feel free to devote yourself to being a fan, because we aren’t going anywhere.” If you don’t think that’s important, ask a Phoenix Coyotes fans what it’s like rooting for a team when they’re never sure about the future. The Atlanta Thrashers could have used a move like this—but it’s a move that the Atlanta Spirit group never would have made.

Sixteen months ago, who would have ever uttered these words: “Lightning fans are lucky to have the owner they do.”

Capitals defeat Blue Jackets in clash of Metropolitan Division powers

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WASHINGTON (AP) T.J. Oshie scored the shootout winner as the Washington Capitals overcame a stellar performance from Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to beat the Blue Jackets 2-1 Thursday night.

Despite 44 saves from Bobrovsky, the Capitals reached 104 points and extended their lead atop the Metropolitan Division and NHL standings. Oshie engendered memories of his Sochi Olympic shootout performance by again beating Bobrovsky, the goalie he scored on four times in six chances that day.

Dmitry Orlov finally cracked Bobrovsky early in the third period on Washington’s 35th shot of the game. Orlov’s goal tied the score after Seth Jones beat Braden Holtby on a wild scramble early in the third for his first goal since Feb. 7.

Holtby had 29 saves in regulation and overtime and three more in the shootout to pick up his 38th victory of the season, one shy of Bobrovsky for the league lead.

A showdown between two of the top three teams in the league jockeying for position atop the Metropolitan Division lacked a playoff feel. But the matchup of two likely Vezina Trophy finalists lived up to that billing as Bobrovsky and Holtby went back and forth with big saves.

Bobrovsky entered the night first in wins, goals-against average and save percentage with Holtby second, second and third in those categories. The 2013 Vezina winner could also be an MVP contender this season given his value to Columbus’ third playoff berth in franchise history.

“When he’s in his game it’s very hard to score on him,” said Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who had eight shots stopped by one of his Russian national teammates. “He likes the big moments, he likes pressure. His worth ethic is unbelievable. … In my opinion he’s one of the best goalies in the league right now.”

Methot ‘out for weeks’ after suffering a shattered finger from Crosby clash

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The Ottawa Senators lost defenseman Marc Methot for the bulk of Thursday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and it seems he’ll be out for quite a while longer, too.

Methot was injured on a Sidney Crosby slash across the hand in the first period. He didn’t return to the game and there was no penalty called on the Penguins captain.

Footage showed the gruesome aftermath of the slash — Methot’s finger on his left hand bloodied and injured as he skated back to the bench.

“His finger is shattered and he’s out for weeks,” said Senators head coach Guy Boucher, per the Ottawa Sun.

Methot immediately confronted Crosby after the slash, which occurred as the Sens blue liner went to dump the puck into the Pittsburgh zone late in the first period.

The Senators got revenge, scoring a 2-1 shootout victory to move within a point of Montreal for the Atlantic Division lead. Crosby was also denied in the shootout.

NHL to make ‘special announcement’ in China next week

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The National Hockey League has announced it will make a “special announcement” at the LeSports Center in Beijing, China next Thursday.

In January, the league’s deputy commissioner Bill Daly made it clear the NHL has interest in playing games in China — likely starting out with pre-season games before potentially adding in some regular season contests in the future, as well.

Just after the league made its announcement on Thursday, the L.A. Kings tweeted out that they will participate in next week’s event, along with the Vancouver Canucks.

In January, hockey insider Darren Dreger reported that the Canucks and Kings were likely to play NHL pre-season games in China this upcoming September.

Last July, members of the Boston Bruins visited China, specifically Beijing and Shanghai, to host hockey clinics in those cities.

Beijing will also host the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Flyers survive early Mason mistake to upset Wild

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Insert the ‘It’s not how you start but how you finish’ cliche right here.

The Philadelphia Flyers fell behind the Minnesota Wild on Thursday, as Zach Parise was the beneficiary of a Steve Mason mistake just 2:07 into the first period.

Mason couldn’t control the deflection into the zone, coughing up a rebound in front. Eric Staal forced a loose puck to Parise and he buried it to open the scoring.

Yeah, not ideal for the Flyers, who are still clinging to the slimmest of playoff hopes.

But they responded with three unanswered goals, including this beauty from Sean Couturier.

Philadelphia took over for a 3-1 victory, with Mason making 24 saves on 25 shots, as Minnesota’s struggles continue. The Wild still sit second in the Central Division but have only two wins in their last 10 games and were unable to secure a playoff spot Thursday.