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Stamkos etches his place into Stanley Cup lore

O Captain! My Captain!

2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Three Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

After having core muscle surgery on March 2nd, recovering, then sustaining another injury (or re-aggravating the former injury) during Phase 2 of Return-To-Play, there was legitimate worry Steven Stamkos wouldn’t see the ice again this season.

The Lightning never fully committed to a return date for the Captain, and after every round the worry grew a little more. Add in rumors that he had left the bubble at some point and Lightning fandom didn’t know what to expect moving forward.

Yet, the Captain defied the odds, returned to the ice, and solidified an iconic moment that will eventually be used as a highlight at his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, regardless of whether or not the Tampa Bay Lightning win the Stanley Cup.

Wednesday night’s victory to give the Tampa Bay Lightning a 2-1 series lead over the Dallas Stars, as sweet as it was, isn’t what will be remembered.

Steven Stamkos’ return, and goal, will.

This is something you would expect to see in a movie.

That actually happened folks.

On his third shift of the game, Stamkos reminded everyone of the impact he brings. A far-side snipe that caught Anton Khudobin cheating too much to the short side. There’s a reason Stamkos has 422 goals in his career, and in that moment it looked like he wasn’t going to miss a beat.

“A dream come true,” Stamkos said of his goal (he didn’t score a single goal in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks).

The reaction from his teammates, and coaching staff, tells us even more.

“However Stammer was feeling at the moment, all the players expressed it on the bench,” coach Jon Cooper said postgame.

“You can see the reaction on the ice and on the bench,” said Victor Hedman. “That’s how much he means to us as a teammate, as a leader, and as a friend.”

However, after taking two more shifts, the Captain didn’t see the ice for the rest of the game. Just 2:47 of ice-time, one shot, one goal, and a memorable impact play which helped propel the Lighting to a 5-2 rout of the Dallas Stars.

There was no specification on what kept him out. “There’s an issue that I’ve been working through. We’ll see what happens from here.” said Stamkos.

Even though Stamkos didn’t play for the remainder of the game, he stayed on the bench to lead his team: it’s always been his team.

Still, it was a night for stars, just not the Dallas kind. Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, and Brayden Point all joined the Captain in scoring goals Wednesday night (Ondrej Palat as well). That’s all of Tampa Bay’s big four stepping up and imposing their will on an opponent.

“These two guys have been unbelievable leaders,” said Stamkos. “What Heddy has taken on as a leadership role. Kucherov has just been the best player in the world. It’s been so fun to be a part of it.”

Kucherov opened the scoring on a breakaway, Hedman became the third defensemen in NHL history to score 10 goals in a postseason, Point inched ever closer to the Lightning postseason goal scoring record (held by Tyler Johnson), and, to make the situation even sweeter, Palat’s insurance goal is a reminder of how good the former 7th round pick has been in these playoffs.

Kucherov, Hedman, and Point have been the driving force for Tampa Bay this postseason. All three are worthy of Conn Smythe consideration, and that isn’t even bringing up the play of Andrei Vasilevskiy this postseason (who also deserves some legitimate buzz). The fact that Tampa Bay only lost four games in the first three rounds of the playoffs is a testament to how good this team is, even without Stamkos.

Additionally, the top line of Palat-Point-Kucherov has been the downright deadly over the past two games.

Even with how strong the the top line, and team are playing; having the Captain back in the lineup was clearly impactful.

“It was inspirational,” said Brayden Point.

“He only had five shifts, but they were as efficient a five shifts as you’re even going to see,” said Cooper. “To do what he did on the biggest stage at the biggest time of the year, you had to marvel at it. It was pretty damn cool.”

No matter the opponent, Columbus, Boston, New York, and now Dallas, the Lightning have managed one blowout in every series this postseason.

This Lightning team isn’t letting it get to their heads though. “We haven’t won anything yet,” said Cooper.

“We’ve got work left to do,” Stamkos said.

If Tampa Bay can replicate how dominant they were in the second period of Game 3, then this series might not last much longer. However, they’re up against a Dallas team that has become the embodiment of ‘never say die’. If anyone thinks the Stars are going to just roll over, they’re sorely mistaken.

Dallas controlled a large portion of the first period Wednesday night, and only trailed due to Tampa Bay capitalizing on critical mistakes. Miro Heiskanen succumbing to the pressure of Palat’s forecheck led to Kucherov’s goal. And Esa Lindell was left in the dust when Stamkos deftly avoided a hip check en-route to his iconic goal.

The second period, however, was complete domination from the Lightning.

In all situations, Tampa Bay out attempted (27-9), out shot (21-4), out chanced (12-5), generated more high danger opportunities (6-1), generated more quality (xGF 82%), and, most importantly, outscored (3-0) Dallas. It was probably the Lightning’s best period of the playoffs.

The third period saw Dallas make a spirited push in controlling play and trying to dress up the scoreboard, but, as the Stars did in Game 1, Tampa Bay seemed content with their lead.

Regardless, it isn’t the win that will be remembered in Stanley Cup lore.

The abbreviated return, and impact, of Steven Stamkos will be.

We only wish there were fans in the stands to witness it.