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EDMONTON — Steven Stamkos wasted no time making an impact on the biggest stage, even if his long-awaited return to the lineup ended up being painfully short.
The Tampa Bay Lightning captain and future hall of famer added to his legacy Wednesday night, scoring early in the first period in a 5-2 victory over the Dallas Stars at Rogers Place. He becomes just the second player in NHL history — and the first since 1940 — to score in a Stanley Cup final game that serves as a playoff debut within a given season.
The Lightning, winners for a second straight outing, now lead the best-of-seven series 2-1. Game 4 is set for Friday night.
"It was just an amazing experience to share with my teammates. There’s been a lot of hard work and different things going on behind the scenes. Just being able to get into a game and have an impact on a game, which a month ago may have never been possible," an emotional Stamkos said in his post-game interview.
"At this time of the year, you want to do anything you can to help your team win. I’ve watched these guys be so committed to what our end goal is. To be part of it tonight, it was a dream come true. I’m so proud of these guys, and to be able to share that moment with them."
Stamkos, who hadn’t suited up since February, has slowly been working himself back to health from a lower-body injury during the past two months inside the playoff bubble. After finally getting the green light, the 30-year-old took a beautiful stretch pass from defenceman Victor Hedman at the Dallas blue line, beat Esa Lindell along the boards and then ripped a wicked wrist shot past Anton Khudobin just 6:58 into the game, and barely a minute after teammate Nikita Kucherov had opened the scoring on a breakaway.
The Lightning bench erupted in celebration, no doubt sensing just how big of a deal this was for their leader and the team in general. They rode that momentum all the way to the finish line, even if Stamkos was a spectator for most of it. He only played five shifts and 2:47 on the night, and none after the 14-minute mark of the opening frame, taking a couple twirls during television timeouts but otherwise just cheering on his teammates from the bench.
"You watch the kid, what he’s done for the last how many months, and for him to be able to do that. He only had five shifts, but probably as efficient a five shifts as you’re ever going to see in a National Hockey League playoff game," said Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper. "To do what he did, in the biggest stage at the biggest time of the year, you have to marvel at it. It was pretty damn cool."
Whether Stamkos aggravated the existing injury or the club was just playing it safe with a healthy lead remains to be seen.
"I wanted to play as much as I could. Obviously there’s an issue that I’ve been working through. We’ll see what happens from here," said Stamkos, who promised to give full details of what he’s dealing with once the season is over.
If this ends up being it, Stamkos left quite a mark, and, as Wednesday showed, Tampa Bay’s other big stars are more than capable of carrying the load.
After Dallas cut the deficit in half later in the first period, courtesy of a Jason Dickinson short-handed snipe, the floodgates really opened in the middle frame when the Lightning connected three times on 21 shots, while holding the Stars to just four shots on Andrei Vasilevskiy.
First it was Hedman, who scored the game-winner just 54 seconds into the period with his team on the power play. Dallas head coach Rick Bowness, prior to the game, bemoaned the undisciplined play of his club in the series, but they didn’t seem to learn their lesson. Alex Radulov, who had a night to forget, was in the box at the time, his first of two infractions in the period.
Hedman is up to 10 goals in the playoffs, which is third-all time for a defenceman in a season. Only Paul Coffey (12) and Brian Leetch (11) have more.
Brayden Point made it 4-1 just past the midway mark, converting a beautiful feed from Kucherov for his playoff-leading 11th goal. Ondrej Palat, the other member of the top line, then got in on the fun when he finished off a dominating offensive-zone shift that resembled the hockey version of the Harlem Globetrotters versus the Washington Generals.
"If you’re going to win, your best players have to be your best players. If you’re going to go the distance, the big boys have to be there for you. And in all aspects they have been," said Cooper.
You couldn’t say the same about Dallas’s slumping snipers, starting with Tyler Seguin all the way on down to captain Jamie Benn, Joe Pavelski and Radulov. They will need to find another gear for the Stars to have any chance to win the Cup.
"We’re giving them the ice time. They have to figure it out. It’s as simple as that," Bowness said in his post-game availability.
Khudobin, beaten five times on 29 shots, was given a mercy pull through 40 minutes, replaced by rookie Jake Oettinger. Dallas No. 1 goalie Ben Bishop remains out with an undisclosed injury suffered early in the playoffs.
Dickinson got his second of the game near the midway mark of the third period on a goal-mouth scramble. Most of the third period was spent with both teams taking plenty of shots at each other, with no shortage of post-whistle scrums. A total of 113 hits and 62 penalty minutes shows there is no love lost between these two squads.
According to the NHL, teams that win the third game of a Stanley Cup final that is tied 1-1 have an all-time series record of 22-7. In other words, Dallas now finds itself in a significant hole.
Updated on Wednesday, September 23, 2020 at 10:39 PM CDT: Adds photo.
11:40 PM: Full write through to final version.
September 24, 2020 at 6:45 AM: Corrects word
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