We have no clear indication whether or not we’ll see Steven Stamkos again in this Stanley Cup final, but the small glimpse he gave us will undoubtedly go down in the trophy’s considerable and long lore. It wasn’t exactly Bobby Baun scoring in overtime on a broken leg, but it was one of those wonderful moments when a superstar lives up to his billing and leaves an indelible mark on the game’s history.
Most importantly, Stamkos’ goal at 6:58 of the first period of Game 3 was meaningful. Had Stamkos taken a couple of twirls on the fourth line and not made a tangible contribution, it would have been a nice little story and some validation for a guy who has sequestered himself in the bubble with his Tampa Bay Lightning teammates for the entirety of the playoffs. But Stamkos, future Hall of Famer, former Rocket Richard winner and one of the most dynamic scorers of his generation, was a difference maker. His goal put the Lighting up 2-0 in a game they would go on to win 5-2, a win that puts them two wins away from the Stanley Cup in a series that is definitely tilting in their direction.
“It was just an amazing experience to share with my teammates,” Stamkos said. “There has been a lot of hard work and different things going on behind the scenes. So just to be able to get out into a game and have an impact on a game which, a month ago, may have never been possible…it was amazing to be part of a huge win for us. I was just really happy to contribute.”
It’s easy to forget that Stamkos was on a 95-point full-season pace when he underwent core muscle surgery March 2. He was re-injured during Phase II of the Lightning’s training, but was supposed to be ready for the first game of the playoffs. A week became a month, a month became indefinite and it looked as though Stamkos was not going to return. But he gave us five shifts, 2:47 of ice time, one goal on one shot and one giveaway. And it would surprise nobody if that turned out to be Stamkos’ line for the entire series. Lightning coach Jon Cooper said he put Stamkos with the assumption that he was ready to play a regular shift. With the Lightning so close to winning the Cup now, it’s probably a risk he won’t be willing to take again.
“I wanted to play as much as I could,” Stamkos said. “Obviously, there’s an issue I’ve been working through. We’ll see what happens from here. There have been a lot of behind-the-scenes things that I’ll be glad to share with you guys after the season.”
Stamkos also said its “too early” to make a determination on whether or not he’ll return in the Stanley Cup final, but you’d have to think the Lightning are leaning toward shutting him down for the rest of the season. According to the NHL stats, Stamkos wasn’t hit once in the game – which is surprising considering whoever is tracking hits in Edmonton is leading us to believe that everybody is hitting everybody all the time – but may have tweaked something when he avoided Esa Lindell’s hit along the boards just prior to his goal. If that’s the case, it’s pretty clear that Stamkos is still not at the stage where he can be counted on to play a full game without having to exit early. “If you’re going to dress, you’re ready to play whatever is asked of you,” Cooper said.
With or without Stamkos, the Lightning are taking over this series. Despite the 3-2 score in Game 2, it was not close. And it was really, really not close in Game 3. One team looked as though it was skating on perpetually fresh ice and the other looked as though it was skating through sand. Perhaps the following names are familiar to you: Kucherov, Stamkos, Hedman, Point, Palat. They happen to be among the Lightning’s best players and each of them scored in Game 3. The Dallas Stars continue to get goals from defensemen and depth players. That is not going to cut it in the Stanley Cup final against a team as talented as the Lightning.
“If you’re going to win, your best players have to be your best players, that’s the bottom line,” Cooper said. “You can get contributions from everybody in different ways, but if you’re going to go the distance, the big boys have to be there for you and in every aspect, they were.”