Smile because it happened.
Steven Stamkos scored, but was then quickly deemed unfit to continue in his much-anticipated return for the Tampa Bay Lightning, who made the most of the spark provided by their captain anyway, taking Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final over the Dallas Stars with a 5-2 victory.
Stamkos provided the most memorable moment, but this was just another game dominated by the central figures of the Lightning’s charge toward a championship. Conn Smythe favourite Victor Hedman scored his 10th goal of the postseason to continue scaling the record books for scoring by defensemen, while all three members of the Lightning’s brilliant No. 1 line — Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat — each netted one to help the Eastern Conference champions seize their first lead of the series.
Andrei Vasilevskiy made 21 saves for the victory, while Anton Khudobin was chased, or load-managed, after allowing five goals on 29 shots.
With the win, Tampa Bay can lift the Stanley Cup as early as the weekend, with a back-to-back scheduled for Game 4 and Game 5 on Friday and Saturday.
It’s exceedingly possible that Stamkos’s total time on the puck through the Stanley Cup Playoffs will be limited to just seven seconds. Even so, the Lightning captain managed to have a tremendous impact.
Just 112 seconds into his long-awaited, but ultimately short-lived return, and with his first live-action touch in an offensive zone in more than 200 days, Stamkos scored a goal he will presumably remember forever, wiring a shot over the shoulder of Anton Khudobin after slipping a check from Esa Lindell in neutral ice.
Steven Stamkos still knows how to shoot a puck pic.twitter.com/4XXF5xmRSU— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) September 24, 2020
It was an awesome goal, and an amazing and richly-deserved moment for Stamkos, who should be directly part of any championship charge for the Lightning. And with that goal, he can say, unequivocally, that he has.
Still, if he fails to take another shift for the Lightning, and his team managed another two wins inside the bubble to win the Stanley Cup, Stamkos, and Stamkos only, will know how it feels to be limited to one period and five shifts across a two-month span that led to the crowning moment for the franchise he’s given so much to.
But surely he satisfied something with the everlasting moment from his brief cameo, and achieved something far more meaningful than a mere emotional lift.
What would the Lightning have done without the goal? That we’ll never know for sure.
Stamkos’s strike will live forever if the Lightning do indeed use Game 3 as a springboard to a championship, however the best bit of media captured in the superstar’s return to the lineup was, hands down, this epic slow-motion warmup gif.
Kudos, NHL social.
Stamkos was late to emerge from the tunnel for the second period while presumably having a difficult discussion or examination with the training staff, but the captain did make it out onto the bench in time to take a front-row seat for a remarkable second period from the Lightning.
It was one-way traffic from start to finish in the frame for the Bolts, who scored three times while running up a 21-4 shot advantage. Tampa Bay’s No. 1 line was especially dominant, scoring twice, while also helping dig out the puck on Hedman’s power-play marker less than a minute into the period.
Last two games for the Point, Kucherov, Palat line is about as dominant as it gets. The numbers with them on the ice at 5v5 via NST:— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) September 24, 2020
•30-6 total shot attempts
•19-1 shots on goal
•10-1 high danger attempts
•3-0 goals scored
What was left after the best series of shifts from the Lightning so far in the final was a 5-1 lead to nurse in the third, which they managed despite some sloppy and undisciplined play.
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