EDMONTON, Alberta — As soon as Steven Stamkos scored on his first shot since February, his Tampa Bay Lightning celebrated on the ice and the bench with 211 days of pent up excitement.
Even after Stamkos left with injury, they didn’t let up and dominated without him, blowing the Dallas Stars out of an empty arena with a 5-2 rout in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night to take the lead in the series. Even though he only skated five shifts for 2:47, the longtime Lightning captain making his 2020 playoff debut 211 days after he last played in an NHL game gave the Lightning a jolt.
“Just to be able to get out into a game and have an impact on a game, which a month ago may have never been possible” a smiling Stamkos said. “It’s been such a long time. 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, and to be part of it tonight, it was a dream come true.”
Stamkos made the most of limited ice time, scoring a vintage goal going around Esa Lindell and sniping a shot past Anton Khudobin. Defenseman Victor Hedman, who fed the puck to Stamkos, lost track of it until he saw it in the back of the net.
The Lightning bench broke into a spontaneous celebration perhaps unlike any goal during the playoffs.
“I think that the cheer was just a little bit louder,” coach Jon Cooper said.
Stamkos skated off gingerly at the end of his final shift in the first period and was not on the bench for the start of the second. He returned to the bench and took a few twirls to test out the injury but did not return.
The Lightning were just fine with Stamkos offering moral support sitting in the middle of the bench. Just his present meant so much.
“Unexpected, but just the lift he gave us A) being able to dress and play and B) scoring, I don’t think the guys were going to be denied,” Cooper said.
That’s because the Lightning got goals from all three of their first-line forwards, their top defenseman and their captain, and big saves from their Vezina Trophy finalist goaltender, while the Stars' best players were quiet once again or made big mistakes to contribute to the loss. Nikita Kucherov, Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat all scored for Tampa Bay, which was the better team from the start of the second period on.
“They made two good shots early,” Stars captain Jamie Benn said. “They capitalized on their chances and we didn’t.”
Khudobin was under pressure most of the night and allowed five goals on 29 shots before coach Rick Bowness replaced him at the start of the third with rookie Jake Oettinger. Khudobin said it was Bowness' choice and that he didn’t ask for the rest.
At the other end, Andrei Vasilevskiy made a few big saves among his 31, including a brilliant left pad stop on Corey Perry early in the game.
The game was everything that has made Tampa Bay one of the best teams in hockey for more than half of the last decade. That included the return of Stamkos, the Lightning’s leader who has been forced to watch while rehabbing a core muscle injury.
Stamkos, who last played Feb. 25, had surgery in early March and aggravated the injury at least once over the summer, didn’t want to go into detail about what happened then or Wednesday night.
“I wanted to play as much as I could,” Stamkos said. “Obviously there was an issue that I’ve been working through. We’ll see what happens from here.”
The Lightning rolled with and without Stamkos. Minutes after Hedman prevented a breakaway goal by speedy Stars forward Denis Gurianov, Kucherov took advantage of a brutal turnover by 21-year-old budding star Miro Heiskanen and scored on a breakaway of his own.
Hedman scored his own goal in the second, his 10th to put him third all-time in goals by defenseman during a single postseason. Only Paul Coffey and Brian Leetch have more.
“I think Kuch said it after the last game: We’re not here for our personal stats,” Hedman said. “We’re here for one thing, and that’s winning the Stanley Cup.”
Dallas' stars not being at their best won’t help their attempt to win it. Beyond Heiskanen’s turnover, top-line winger Alexander Radulov took two bad penalties, while Tyler Seguin’s goal drought reached a career-worst 12 games and Khuodbin was shaky.
“We lost our team play, we lost our intensity and we lost our focus,” Bowness said. “When you do that, a team like that is going to make you look real bad, which they did.”
Fourth-liner Jason Dickinson scored the Stars' only goal before the game was out of hand, and Heiskanen’s in the third period didn’t make up for putting the puck right on Kucherov’s stick for the breakaway.
While Tampa Bay got a significant talent back, Dallas was without a key veteran role player. Forward Blake Comeau was ruled unfit to play after appearing to injure his right shoulder on a hit by Ryan McDonagh in Game 2.
Nick Caamano made his NHL playoff debut in Comeau’s place. He also last played — in the minors — 196 days ago.
Stamkos' return was emotional in many ways, coming the week after he joined the Lightning on the ice to celebrate reaching the final.
“I’m so proud of these guys, and to be able to share that moment with them and just even be on the bench and watch how well we played tonight, I have told these guys before: It’s inspiring,” Stamkos said. “It was great to be part of.”