Three games into a road trip, as far away from Amalie Arena as he could be, Steven Stamkos was mobbed by his teammates and cheered with a standing ovation at Rogers Arena when he notched his 500th NHL goal against the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday night.
" 'Killer' (Alex Killorn) made an unbelievable play, so hats off to him," said Stamkos after the game, describing the historic tally which opened the scoring at 4:40 of the first period.
"It was great hustle by (Anthony) Cirelli, then 'Killer' with that toe drag. I knew it was coming, I just didn't know when. I was wide open, back door. Just had to make sure I didn't miss the puck."
Barely a month after Stamkos was lauded for reaching 1,000 career points, he has now reached another historic milestone. He's the 18th player in NHL history to log 500 goals and 1,000 points in less than 1,000 career games (for him, 965) and just the third active player to reach the benchmark, following Alex Ovechkin (801 games) and Sidney Crosby (1,077 games).
"He's a generational goal-scorer, and those guys don't come around that often," said Lightning coach Jon Cooper after his team extended its current winning streak to five games with a 5-2 victory over Vancouver. "Enjoy him while you can."
After potting the historic 500th, Stamkos added two more goals, with hats raining down from the stands as he hit the empty net to close out the scoring with 1:22 left on the clock.
"I think with the success we've had over the last decade, our fan base has really grown," said Cooper. "Stammer has been a big part of that — of our growth and our franchise, being, I think, one of the power franchises in the league in the last little while.
"But what I love about Vancouver — the fans are educated and they appreciate the history of the game," continued the coach, who was born and raised in Prince George, in northern British Columbia. "They appreciate watching good players and you can see that by the respect they showed."
Stamkos recalled a similar response when he earned his second career Rocket Richard Trophy and scored his career-high 60th goal in a season on the road in Winnipeg more than a decade ago, in the last game of the 2011-12 season.
"That's something as a player that sticks with you for a long time, when you're on the road, and you get that type of reception," he said. "I just want to say to the fans that were here tonight, thank you, and I appreciate that. Very classy move."
Stamkos is the first player in 17 years and just the eighth in NHL history to score a hat trick on the night of his 500th career goal. He's in some fine, fine company:
- Mats Sundin (2006)
- Jaromir Jagr (2003)
- Brett Hull (1996)
- Mark Messier (1995)
- Mario Lemieux (1995)
- Wayne Gretzky (1986)
- Jean Beliveau (1971)
True to form, the Lightning captain quickly included his teammates in his accomplishment.
"It's such a humbling experience when when you have a moment like that, and you get to celebrate it with your teammates who are genuinely just as excited as you are," he said. "Obviously, this is an individual statistic, but it takes so many different players along the way that have helped me get to that. You're just very thankful to be part of this group and in the group of players that played with for one organization for the last, you know, 14-plus years."
With that in mind, who better to set up the historic goal than Killorn, who was drafted by the Lightning one year before Stamkos, in 2007, and has been on the roster since the 2012-13 season?
"That highlight will live on for a while, so it's special to be a part of it," said the 33-year-old. "I've played with Stammer for 11 years now, and I've witnessed a lot of them, but to be part of it on the 500th is special for me for sure."
No team has played more hockey over the last three years than the Lightning, who have made three straight trips to the Stanley Cup final. But still, it's the veteran core that leads the way.
With an 8-2-0 record over the last 10 games to go along with that five-game winning streak, Tampa Bay is currently neck-and-neck with Boston, New Jersey and Seattle as one of the hottest teams in the NHL.
And while the Lightning essentially turned over half their roster since the 2021 Stanley Cup win, and newcomer Brandon Hagel proves he was worth the high price the Chicago Blackhawks demanded at the 2022 trade deadline, most of the heavy lifting this season is being done by Tampa Bay's familiar cast of characters. Behind the Stamkos hat trick on Wednesday, the three other players with multi-point nights were Killorn (0-2-2), Brayden Point (1-1-2) and Nikita Kucherov (1-1-2).
Kucherov, now back in full health, is up to third in league scoring, with 64 points. After his 106-point season in 2021-22, Stamkos is on pace for another 100-point campaign. Point is back to better than a point per game after that devastating injury that hobbled him in the 2022 playoffs. And there's a fresh, capable supporting cast in place behind the core group, which has proven it knows how to win — and is still hungry for more.
With Wednesday's victory, the Lightning moved to just two points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Atlantic Division standings. And with two games in hand, Tampa Bay is actually ahead of Toronto by points percentage (.686 vs. .678).
With half a season to go, a first-round rematch between the Leafs and Lightning already looks all but inevitable.
Pass the popcorn.