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Stamkos scores, leaves with injury; Lightning beat Stars 5-2 in Game 3

Associated Press

Edmonton, Alberta — As soon as Steven Stamkos scored on his first shot since February, his Tampa Bay Lightning celebrated on the ice and the bench with 211 days of pent up excitement.

Even after Stamkos left with injury, they didn’t let up and dominated without him, blowing the Dallas Stars out of an empty arena with a 5-2 rout in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night to take the lead in the series. Even though he only skated five shifts for 2:47, the longtime Lightning captain making his 2020 playoff debut 211 days after he last played in an NHL game gave the Lightning a jolt.

Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos, top left, celebrates his goal against Dallas Stars goaltender Anton Khudobin (35) during the first period of Game 3 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Final, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020, in Edmonton, Alberta.

“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” a smiling Stamkos said. “It’s been such a long time. At this time of the year, you want to do anything you can to help your team win. 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.”

Stamkos made the most of limited ice time, scoring a vintage goal going around Esa Lindell and sniping a shot past Anton Khudobin. Defenseman Victor Hedman, who fed the puck to Stamkos, lost track of it until he saw it in the back of the net.

The Lightning the bench broke into a spontaneous celebration perhaps unlike any goal during the playoffs.

“I think that the cheer was just a little bit louder,” coach Jon Cooper said.

Stamkos skated off gingerly at the end of his final shift in the first period and was not on the bench for the start of the second. He returned to the bench and took a few twirls to test out the injury but did not return.

The Lightning were just fine with Stamkos offering moral support sitting in the middle of the bench. Just his presen meant so much.

“Unexpected, but just the lift he gave us A) being able to dress and play and B) scoring, I don’t think the guys were going to be denied,” Cooper said.

That’s because the Lightning got goals from all three of their first-line forwards, their top defenseman and their captain and big saves from their Vezina Trophy finalist goaltender, while the Stars’ best players were quiet once again or made big mistakes to contribute to the loss. Nikita Kucherov, Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat all scored for Tampa Bay, which was the better team from the start of the second period on.

“They made two good shots early,” Stars captain Jamie Benn said. “They capitalized on their chances and we didn’t.”

Khudobin was under pressure most of the night and allowed five goals on 29 shots before coach Rick Bowness replaced him at the start of the third with rookie Jake Oettinger. Khudobin said it was Bowness’ choice and that he didn’t ask for the rest.

At the other end, Andrei Vasilevskiy made a few big saves among his 31, including a brilliant left pad stop on Corey Perry early in the game.

The game was everything that has made Tampa Bay one of the best teams in hockey for more than half of the last decade. That included the return of Stamkos, the Lightning’s leader who has been forced to watch while rehabbing a core muscle injury.

Stamkos, who last played Feb. 25, had surgery in early March and aggravated the injury at least once over the summer, didn’t want to go into detail about what happened then or Wednesday night.

“I wanted to play as much as I could,” Stamkos said. “Obviously there was an issue that I’ve been working through. We’ll see what happens from here.”

The Lightning rolled with and without Stamkos. Minutes after Hedman prevented a breakaway goal by speedy Stars forward Denis Gurianov, Kucherov took advantage of a brutal turnover by 21-year-old budding star Miro Heiskanen and scored on a breakaway of his own.

Hedman scored his own goal in the second, his 10th to put him third all-time in goals by defenseman during a single postseason. Only Paul Coffey and Brian Leetch have more.

“I think Kuch said it after the last game: We’re not here for our personal stats,” Hedman said. “We’re here for one thing, and that’s winning the Stanley Cup.”

Dallas’ stars not being at their best won’t help their attempt to win it. Beyond Heiskanen’s turnover, top-line winger Alexander Radulov took two bad penalties, while Tyler Seguin’s goal drought reached a career-worst 12 games and Khuodbin was shaky.

“We lost our team play, we lost our intensity and we lost our focus,” Bowness said. “When you do that, a team like that is going to make you look real bad, which they did.”

Fourth-liner Jason Dickinson scored the Stars’ only goal before the game was out of hand, and Heiskanen’s in the third period didn’t make up for putting the puck right on Kucherov’s stick for the breakaway.

While Tampa Bay got a significant talent back, Dallas was without a key veteran role player. Forward Blake Comeau was ruled unfit to play after appearing to injure his right shoulder on a hit by Ryan McDonagh in Game 2.

Nick Caamano made his NHL playoff debut in Comeau’s place. He also last played – in the minors – 196 days ago.

Stamkos’ return was emotional in many ways, coming the week after he joined the Lightning on the ice to celebrate reaching the final.

“I’m so proud of these guys, and to be able to share that moment with them and just even be on the bench and watch how well we played tonight, I have told these guys before: It’s inspiring,” Stamkos said. “It was great to be part of.”

Lightning bounce back to even Stanley Cup Final with Stars 1-1

Associated Press

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Edmonton, Alberta — Nikita Kucherov and the Tampa Bay Lightning got themselves up off the ice to get even in the Stanley Cup Final.

After the Lightning got knocked around in Game 1, and Kucherov took some more hard hits early in Game 2, he had the primary assists on power-play goals by Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat in the first period. Kevin Shattenkirk then scored for an early three-goal lead and Tampa Bay held on for a 3-2 victory over the Dallas Stars on Monday night.

"It was a tough start I guess," Kucherov said. "It's the playoffs, you have to play, it doesn't matter what happened."

All of Tampa Bay's goals came in a span of four shots in less than four minutes against Anton Khudobin, who made a Stanley Cup Final-record 22 saves in the third period for the Stars in their 4-1 win in Game 1. It was the first time in seven games that Tampa Bay scored the opening goal.

Game 3 is Wednesday night.

Joe Pavelski and Mattias Janmark scored for Dallas on passes from John Klingberg, with Alexander Radulov also assisting on both.

"After that, we really got back to what makes us successful as a team, we got pucks deep, we were good on the forecheck, we got some good opportunities," said Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, who had two assists. "I liked the way we responded ... to close them out."

Kucherov left the bench momentarily early in the game after slamming into the boards during a collision with defenseman Jamie Oleksiak after trying to block a shot. Kucherov had already ended up on the ice twice before, when he was popped by Dallas captain Jamie Benn and when he drew a high-sticking penalty against Janmark. He was back quickly.

"I left because my visor was broken or something," Kucherov insisted. "I went back in the room and changed it, nothing bad happened."

On their second power play in Game 2, the Lightning cycled the puck to set up Kucherov's pass to Point to open the scoring 11:23 into the game. Three minutes later with a a man advantage again, Palat finished a nice passing sequence, taking advantage of a half-open net and another setup by Kucherov.

'"It's easy to explain: we lost faceoffs and we were turning the puck over and we were taking penalties," Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness said. "It was an even game until we started taking penalties. It's faceoffs, turnovers and penalties — things you can't afford to do against an elite team like that."

Shattenkirk scored less than a minute after Palat to make it 3-0. Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 27 shots for Tampa Bay. Khudobin had 28 saves.

Tampa Bay had failed to score on its previous 14 power-play chances with the man advantage, since Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finale, until the Kucherov-assisted goals with a man advantage.

"There's a couple good teams that have somewhat of a foundation to win games and how you play," Pavelski said. "We definitely were closer to ours in Game 1, and we got away from it early tonight and it cost us."

Dallas finally got on the board on a power play with 5:17 left in the second. Klingberg took a shot from near the blue line, and Pavelski redirected the puck with his raised stick even with Ryan McDonagh all over him in front of the net.

In the third period, Klingberg was in the right circle, when instead of taking a shot as Vasilevskiy expected, passed to Janmark, who had charged and suddenly stopped behind Shattenkirk just beyond the crease to score.

The Lightning looked to have another goal, and a two-goal lead, with just under 11 minutes left when Mikhail Sergachev shot from the point and got the puck through traffic past Khudobin. Bowness challenged and replay clearly showed Blake Coleman was offside.

The hits showed no sign of slowing down in this rugged final: Late in the second period, Pat Maroon decked Khudobin after taking a shot and got a goalie interference penalty. Earlier in the shift, McDonagh knocked Blake Comeau down and out with a questionable hit. Corey Perry and Cedric Paquette went at it, too, with Perry putting him in a headlock before an angry Paquette flipped him over.

Stanley Cup Final

TAMPA BAY 2, DALLAS 1

Saturday, Sept. 19: Dallas 4, Tampa Bay 1

Monday, Sept. 21: Tampa Bay 3, Dallas 2 

Wednesday, Sept. 23: Tampa Bay 5, Dallas 2

Friday, Sept. 25: Tampa Bay vs. Dallas, 8 p.m.

Saturday, Sept. 26 Dallas vs. Tampa Bay, 8 p.m.

x-Monday, Sept. 28: Tampa Bay vs. Dallas, 8 p.m.

x-Wednesday, Sept. 30: Dallas vs. Tampa Bay, 8 p.m.

x-If necessary