It’s been almost seven months to the day since Steven Stamkos played an NHL game. That’s 212 days since he stickhandled through defenses and shot the puck on another team’s goalie.
On Wednesday night, the Lightning’s captain returned to the lineup with the kind of flourish typical of his superstar status.
Less than 90 seconds after Nikita Kucherov gave Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead, Stamkos scored on his first shot to give his squad a 2-0 lead in the all-important Game 3 of a knotted-up Stanley Cup Final.
Skating through the neutral zone, Stamkos avoided the check by Esa Lindell at the Stars bench, glided into the right circle and went top corner past netminder Anton Khudobin. There was little apparent rust in that maneuver despite his time out of the lineup.
In the first period, he skated 2:47, all at even strength, on the fourth line with Pat Maroon and Cedric Paquette. The goal was his first since Feb. 20 against the Golden Knights when he potted two.
Stamkos did not immediately return to the Lightning’s bench for the middle frame. He did eventually emerge from the locker room with just over 12 minutes left in the period and took a few spins on the ice during a commercial break; however, he did play a shift in the period.
Before Wednesday night, he hadn’t laced up the skates and pulled over his jersey with the “C” since Feb. 25 against the Maple Leafs when he scored an assist and extended his point streak to 15 games (12 goals, 10 assists).
On March 2 he had surgery to repair a core muscle injury and was expected to miss six to eight weeks. Despite not partaking in bubble hockey until Game 3, he had been with the team and was on the ice when the Lightning was handed the Prince of Wales Trophy as the 2020 Eastern Conference champions.
After Wednesday’s morning skate, which it didn’t look like Stamkos had participated in per the video the NHL posts, head coach Jon Cooper said, when asked about his availability and what he would bring to the lineup if he plays: “He’s inching closer. He’s a threat. He’s just another thing for a team to think about when he’s out there, whether that’s on the power play or 5-on-5, you get another player that when the puck gets on his stick in the offensive zone it might go in the net especially in a game or series where goals are at a premium.
“So if he comes back, his timing, there’s a lot of things that have to go into this beforehand but he’s getting closer.”
Well, hours later he was so close he was on the ice partaking in warmups and then the game.
During the 2019-20 truncated season, he posted 66 points (29 goals, 37 assists) in 57 games and entrering Game 3, had 23 goals and 30 assists — including 18 points when the Lightning last played in the Stanley Cup Final back in 201 — in 70 career playoff games.