Stamkos brief stint enough to inspire Lightning in Game 3 win

If 2:47 is all the ice time Steven Stamkos ends up getting in the Stanley Cup Final, it will have been worth it — all the rehab over 211 days, including all the isolation in the bubble the past 60.

The forward skated five shifts and had the puck for seven seconds before he couldn’t continue playing in Game 3 on Wednesday, but he scored on his one shot and helped the Tampa Bay Lightning to a 5-2 victory against the Dallas Stars and a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 series.

“It’s been such a long time, but at this time of the year, you want to do anything you can to help your team win,” Stamkos said. “I’ve watched these guys be so committed to what our end goal is, and to be part of it tonight was, it was …

“It was a dream come true.”

Stamkos is the second player in NHL history to score when playing his first game of that postseason in the Stanley Cup Final. Billy Taylor Sr. also did so for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1940 Final against the New York Rangers. 

Video: TBL@DAL, Gm3: Stamkos returns to lineup with goal

Stamkos said it was too early to determine his status for the rest of the series. Game 4 is at Rogers Place in Edmonton, the hub city for the Cup Final, on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS). 

“He only had five shifts but probably as efficient a five shifts as you’re ever going to see in a National Hockey League playoff game,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “This is the season that seems to never end, and here we are watching a player come back and then do what he did in the biggest stage at the biggest time of the year, you …

“You have to marvel at it. It’s pretty damn cool.”

Stamkos last played Feb. 25. He had surgery to repair a core muscle injury March 2 and missed Tampa Bay’s final seven games before the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

Through the pause, workouts, training camp, round-robin portion of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers and first three rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he worked and waited. 

Injury and illness had cost him so much in his career, he had not won the Cup, and time was ticking on another opportunity.

“You want to help your team win, and you have to find ways obviously when you’re not on the ice to still be part of that,” Stamkos said. “I’ve tried to do my best in that regard. But it’s so painful to just sit and watch and feel like you have no part of the game.”

Cooper said Sunday he would not play Stamkos in a reduced role.

“He wouldn’t want that, either,” Cooper said then. “Nobody wants to go into a game and sit on the bench the whole time. You have to be ready to play minutes and contribute.”

Stamkos said he knew he was going to play after skating Tuesday. If Stamkos and the medical staff thought he was ready, it was a no-brainer to play him. Not only is he the Tampa Bay captain, he had 66 points (29 goals, 37 assists) in 57 games in the regular season and ranks sixth among active players in goals with 422.

Video: The Lightning take game three over the Stars, 5-2

His third shift, he looked like he never left. Flying up the right wing, he took a pass from defenseman Victor Hedman, slipped past a check by Dallas defenseman Esa Lindell along the boards, skated into the right circle and snapped a shot high into the far side of the net, giving the Lightning a 2-0 lead at 6:58 of the first period.

He leapt into a hockey hug with teammate Pat Maroon. The Tampa Bay bench erupted.

“It was amazing to have him back on the ice, and for him to score that goal, we know it meant a lot to him,” Hedman said. “And you can see the reaction on the ice and on our bench when he scored that goal. That’s how much he means to us as a teammate and as a leader and as a friend, so we were super happy for him.”

Stamkos played two shifts after that. He talked to the trainers on the bench and didn’t come out with his teammates to start the second period. Eventually, slowly, he walked back to the bench but didn’t take the ice except to test his body during TV timeouts.

Cooper called it “unexpected” but said Stamkos gave the Lightning a lift first by playing, then by scoring and finally by sitting and speaking on the bench.

“I wanted to play as much as I could,” Stamkos said. “It’s just … Yeah, obviously there’s an issue I’ve been working through, so we’ll see what happens from here. But like I said, I was just extremely happy to be out there with these guys and have a chance to just be on the bench and contribute to a win.”

Whatever happens from here, this will live forever in his memory, in his legend, in lore.

“In this playoffs, it’s been different for him, and to be able to come back and do what he did in this limited time he had is pretty remarkable,” Cooper said. “It’s been months and months in the making for this moment, and he delivered when we needed him.”

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