It’s hard not to appreciate Steven Stamkos.
He’s an elite talent, sidelined time and again by injury and illness the past few years, but expressing nothing but pure joy that he got to play — even for just five shifts in Game 3, even if that 2:47 of ice time is all that he’ll get in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
He scored, too. A hard wrist shot down the wing like so many elite scorers of the past: Guy Lafleur, Lanny McDonald, Mike Bossy if you’re a certain age.
It might have stood up as the winner if not for a late Dallas goal in Tampa’s 5-2 win that gave them a 2-1 lead over the Stars in the best-of-seven Stanley Cup final. No matter. It wasn’t the win that was inspiring. It wasn’t the goal. It was that he was there at all.
“It was just an amazing experience to share with my teammates,” said Stamkos. “There’s been a lot of hard work, and different things behind the scenes. Just to be able to get out to a game, and have an impact on the game that a month ago didn’t look like it was possible.
“It was amazing to be part of a huge win for us. I was just really happy to contribute in a game that I didn’t play too much.”
THE SHORT BUT EFFECTIVE COMEBACK
Stamkos underwent surgery to repair a muscle in his core on March 2, and was expected to miss about two months. But he suffered a setback as he prepared for the playoffs that were delayed by the pandemic. He’s been in the bubble the whole time, trying to get ready to play. He wants his name on the Stanley Cup, not because he played the requisite number of games (41) in the regular season, but because he contributed to the team’s success in the final.
Stamkos said he knew on Tuesday that his moment was coming Wednesday. The Lightning kept that under wraps, though it more or less became clear when he took the pre-game warmup.
“At this time of the year, you want to do anything you can to help your team win,” said Stamkos. “I’ve watched these guys be so committed to our end goal, and to be part of it was a dream come true.”
It was five shifts in all, and he scored on the third one.
“You marvel at players,” said Tampa coach Jon Cooper. “He only had five shifts, but probably as efficient a five shifts as you’re ever going to see in an NHL playoff game.
“This is the season that never ends. Here we are watching a player come back, doing what he did, in the biggest stage of the year. You have to marvel at it. It was pretty damned cool.”
Stamkos sat on the bench for the final part of the first period, and missed the first eight minutes of the second. Eventually he came back, took a spin on the ice during a stoppage, then sat on the bench the rest of way, cheering on his teammates.
“I wanted to play as much as I could. Obviously there’s an issue I’ve been working through,” said Stamkos. “We’ll see what happens from here.”
THE STAMKOS EFFECT
Far from deflating the Lightning when Stamkos re-sidelined himself, his teammates were re-energized just having him around. The big guns produced: Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Brayden Point, and Ondrej Palat all contributed goals, all praising their captain for persevering enough to get back and even score.
“It was amazing to have him back on the ice. For him to score that goal, it meant so much for us because he’s such a leader, such a teammate, such a friend,” said Hedman.
“Just seeing him, the positivity he brings and leadership he brings even when he’s not playing has been huge for us. For us to see him work that hard to get back into the lineup, then score one, it’s pretty inspirational for us,” said Point.
“Just because Stamkos couldn’t play didn’t mean he didn’t help us win,” said Cooper. “His presence on the bench, the things he was saying to the group. Regardless if he was on the ice or not, he was contributing.”
Anton Khudobin was pulled from the net after the first period. A wise move, to get him rest before Games 4 and 5 — back to back Friday and Saturday. But the Stars look like they’ve given up the ghost. Tyler Seguin is snake-bit, still looking for his first goal of the final. Miro Heiskanen had his weakest game of the post-season, a terrible giveaway leading to Tampa’s first goal. Heiskanen got credit for a Tampa own-goal. Jason Dickinson scored short-handed. Alexander Radulov was hurt and missed the end of the game, with no post-game update on his status.
“We’re going to have to find our game between now and Friday,” said Dallas coach Rick Bowness. “The problems we had were evident to everyone, including our players. We know how we have to play to beat this team. We showed a lot of good things early in the first period, then we just go completely away from it. We know what we have to do, we know how we have to play. It’s a matter of putting this game behind us and get ready for that first period Friday.”
Will Stamkos play again? No one was saying. They probably honestly don’t know. And given that talking about injuries is forbidden by the league, we’ll be back to “tune in to Game 4 to find out” mode. Game 4 is Friday, Game 5 Saturday.
The way Tampa asserted itself, the Stanley Cup celebration could come sooner rather than later. There’s a but. But …teams up 2-1 in any best-of-seven Stanley Cup Playoffs series own an all-time series record of 361-154 (.701), including an 11-1 mark in 2020. The only team that overcame a 2-1 deficit to win a best-of-seven series this year was the Stars, who reeled off three consecutive wins to rally past the Flames in the Western Conferece quarterfinals.
MORE ON STAMKOS
He last played Feb. 25 against the Maple Leafs.
He concluded the regular season with a point in 15 consecutive games played from Jan. 14 to Feb. 25 (12-10—22), the third-longest run in franchise history.
He is one of nine who played with Tampa Bay in the 2015 Stanley Cup final and are still with the team.
He is the first skater since 2015 to play his first game of a post-season in the Stanley Cup final.
He is the first NHL player in over 80 years to skate his first game of a post-season in the Stanley Cup final and score a goal, joining Toronto’s Billy Taylor Sr. in Game 2 of the 1940 final against the Rangers.
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