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Stamkos Returns, Stamkos Leaves; Lightning Beat Stars 5-2

September 23, 2020, 11:18 PM ET [16 Comments]
Michael Stuart
Tampa Bay Lightning Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
He’s back! Sort of! Tampa Bay Lightning Captain Steven Stamkos returned to game action in Game Three of the Stanley Cup Final, helping propel his team to a decisive 5-2 victory over the Dallas Stars. While his on-ice presence was short lived, Stamkos’ impact on this game was measurable in a number of ways. It was at least a small part of Tampa’s best performance in this series to date.

Things got off to a quick start for Tampa Bay, with the team’s best players once again leading the charge. Just over five minutes into the contest, after receiving the puck on one of the prettier spin-o-rama feeds you’ll ever see, Nikita Kucherov opened the scoring by popping the puck past Anton Khudobin on a breakaway. The unfortunate thing for Dallas was that the spectacular “assist” came courtesy of Miro Heiskanen, who foolishly threw the puck to the middle of the ice at his own blue line. Of all NHL players to give the puck to in a spot like that, Kucherov is just about a worst-case scenario. He made no mistake.

It didn’t take the Bolts long to build further on that early lead, this time with the Captain making an impact in his return. After more than 200 days away from game action, Steven Stamkos returned with a thundering roar. Beyond the fact that he generated a very palpable emotional boost for the team and fan base, he scored the goal that put his team up 2-0 early in the first period. It was a classic goal scorer’s goal, with Stamkos picking the corner as he flew down the wing. The reaction from his Lightning teammates said it all; it was a special, special moment.

At that point, there was certainly a Game Two vibe in the air. The Lightning had the early lead and their best players clicking, with a real opportunity to put Dallas away. Then, much as in Game Two, the script flipped. The period really tilted in the Stars’ favour thereafter; the Bolts were under siege on almost every shift. That sustained Dallas pressure to end the first was summed up perfectly by their opening goal, when they didn’t allow Ondrej Palat to clear the puck on multiple chances and then fired the puck past Andrei Vasilevskiy (he just kind of… whiffed?) to cut the lead to 2-1.

As if the Dallas goal wasn’t enough, the Lightning got another scare when Stamkos left the game towards the end of the first and didn’t return for the start of the second. Combined with the way they ended the opening period, the stars seemed to be aligning for a Stars comeback. Instead of cowering, though, the Lightning fought back. Just as Dallas took control of the latter half of the first period, Tampa Bay absolutely dominated the second period. They held the Stars to virtually no offence, and managed to extend their own lead when Victor Hedman scored his tenth goal (!) of this postseason. The fun didn’t stop there either; with about eight minutes left in the middle frame, Nikita Kucherov fed Brayden Point on a three-on-one rush, and the latter made no mistake in beating Khudobin with a quick shot.

With a three-goal lead in hand and just a few minutes left in the second, the task for the Lightning was simple: Take that three-goal lead into the third period. Rather than simply do that, the team’s big line figured that they might as well extend it to four. A scramble in front of Khudobin allowed Ondrej Palat to bat the puck into a wide-open cage for the 5-1 lead with only 1:05 remaining on the clock. To say that the Palat, Point, Kucherov trio has had a monumental impact on this Lightning team’s fortunes in these playoffs would still be an understatement. They are performing like few lines in hockey can perform, and are as close to unstoppable as a unit can be on almost every shift. Dallas once again had no answers for them in this one.

The Stars were able to get a goal back early in the third period, but by that point the game really felt out of reach. The second period had to be crushing for Dallas. Tampa Bay had nothing to do but coast home from that point, which they were able to do with relative ease in a low-event final stanza. (Save for some late-game antics...). The end result was a convincing 5-2 victory that sets up a pivotal Game Four; as was said in the New York series, a 3-1 lead feels a lot different than a 2-2 draw.

Obviously the major concern or talking point coming out of this game is the health of Steven Stamkos. His return had to be a big emotional boost for the team as a whole, and his first period goal will be remembered regardless of what happens with the rest of this series. But, the fact that he didn’t touch the ice again suggests that his injury concern is still very real. Even with the injury bug biting, the Captain stuck around on the bench to support his teammates when they needed him most. That his presence coincided with the team’s best game of this series to date doesn’t strike me as a coincidence.

As always, thanks for reading.
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