The cheer from the bench was just a little bit louder. The smile on Steven Stamkos‘ face was bigger than usual.
After 211 days away, the Tampa Bay Lightning captain returned to the lineup for Game 3 and made an impact — albeit in a brief appearance. Stamkos played only five shifts and 2:47 during Tampa’s 5-2 victory, but it was a worthwhile experience.
His goal 6:58 into the game gave the Lightning a 2-0 lead over the Dallas Stars. It was in early March that Stamkos underwent core muscle surgery and it has been two months since he was re-injured and miss everyone of Tampa’s Stanley Cup Playoff games before Game 3. So when his wrist shot flew over Anton Khudodin’s blocker, it was a moment he’d been waiting a long time for.
“At this time of the year you want to do anything you can to help your team win,” said Stamkos, who found out he’d be playing after Tuesday’s skate. “I’ve watched these guys be so committed to what our end goal is and to be part of it tonight, it was a dream come true, and I’m so proud of these guys to be able to share that moment with them.”
The reaction of Lightning head coach Jon Cooper after the goal summed up the moment. Along with the general happiness of taking a two-goal lead in the first seven minutes of the game, there was also a bit of disbelief.
“You marvel at players,” Cooper said. “He only had five shifts, but probably an efficient five shifts as you’re ever going to see in a National Hockey League playoff game. … It was pretty damn cool.”
Before Wednesday night, Stamkos last played Feb. 25, with his last goal coming Feb. 20. It was a long road back to the ice. The March pause saw the 2019-20 NHL season hang in the balance, and when there was clarity on a resumption of play, he had to exit the lineup again hoping to come back during the playoffs. Fortunately for him, the depth of the Lightning allowed a return to be possible.
“Our group feels like we’ve got a recipe in how we want to play,” said defenseman Ryan McDonagh. “No matter who’s going over the boards, no matter how many times you’re asked to go over, you see the effort and will from everybody, and that’s what’s been the key for us.”
Stamkos had been left to be the team’s biggest cheerleader while he waited for the day he’d return to the lineup. Those moments watching were excruciating for him, and each series win brought another lifeline.
“It’s so painful to just sit and watch and feel like you have no part of the game because you’re way more nervous watching the games,” Stamkos said. “You want to have a say and you want to contribute.”
All that work since March has paid off. While Stamkos wasn’t ready to declare his status for the remainder of the series, his road to get to this point has not gone unnoticed by his teammates.
“He’s worked extremely hard to get back to a spot where he could play,” said Brayden Point. “Just seeing him day in, day out, the positivity he brings and the leadership he brings even when he’s not playing has been huge for us. For us to see him work that hard to get back in the lineup and then score one, it’s pretty inspirational for our bench.”
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Dallas Stars (TB leads 2-1)
Stars 4, Lightning 1 (recap)
Lightning 3, Stars 2 (recap)
Lightning 5, Stars 2 (recap)
Game 4: Friday, Sept. 25, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
Game 5: Saturday, Sept. 26, 8 p.m. ET – NBC (livestream)
*Game 6: Monday, Sept. 28, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, Sept. 30, 8 p.m. ET – NBC