TAMPA — The roar was deafening when Lightning captain Steven Stamkos was fittingly introduced last before Friday's season opener.
Finally, Stamkos was back. And finally, after a painfully long, playoff-less summer, so was hockey.
"The guys were so excited and amped up to play this game, knowing how long the fans have been waiting for hockey that meant something," Stamkos said.
And if Tampa Bay finds a way like it did for its 5-3 victory over the Panthers in front of a sellout crowd of 19,092 at Amalie Arena, meaningful hockey might be played here in the spring. It wasn't the Lightning's best performance, but it showed resolve after blowing a two-goal lead.
"We got better as the game went on," coach Jon Cooper said.
With slow starts to the season plaguing Tampa Bay the past two seasons, wing Ryan Callahan said he had never seen this group so hungry heading into an opener. Pundits all over North American have pegged Tampa Bay a Stanley Cup contender, just like it was before last season's stunning playoff whiff.
There were plenty of reasons for the Lightning to feel encouraged after the game. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, opening his first full season as No. 1, was the team's best player early with some stellar, point-blank stops.
"If he lets a couple of those in, it's a whole new game," center Brayden Point said.
Point had a monster game, with a goal and three points, his line with Yanni Gourde and Ondrej Palat carrying the Lightning. If the trio can pull that off regularly, Tampa Bay might have some much-needed secondary scoring.
"They were fantastic," Stamkos said.
At last year's opener, Point joked he had to figure out where to skate during introductions, having surprised many by even making the team. On Friday, he was the game's No. 1 star.
After Point gave the Lightning a 2-0 lead early in the second period, the Panthers bounced back with two goals in five minutes to tie it.
That's when Stamkos had his first signature moment of the season. On a power play, he found Vladislav Namestnikov at the back post for an easy tap-in. It was a play they had worked on a few days ago in practice, a cross-crease feed from Stamkos right on Namestnikov's tape.
"Nice to see it work," Stamkos said.
Stamkos had two shots and three hits in 18:14 of playing time, believing it was a good step in his first regular-season game since November because of knee surgery. Wing Ryan Callahan, in his first regular-season game since January because of hip problems, looked like his old self, ferocious on the forecheck and power play.
And 19-year-old defenseman Mikhail Sergachev held his own in his Lightning debut. Sergachev tied for the team lead with four shots and showed an edge in a first-period scrum with the Panthers' Vincent Trocheck.
Sergachev did have a rookie moment, getting stripped of the puck behind his net and taking a penalty, but overall he was solid in 16 minutes.
"He exceeded our expectations," Cooper said. "He didn't shy away; he played with confidence. You want to have guys back there that do that."
There's still a long way to go. Tonight's game against the Panthers in Sunrise continues a three-games-in-four-nights stretch.
"You're not in the playoffs winning one game," Anton Stralman said.
But for a team — and a fan base — that had waited so long for a chance at redemption, it was a good start.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.
First—1, Tampa Bay, Palat 1 (Point, Hedman), 6:33. Penalties—Sustr, TB, (slashing), 8:25; Kucherov, TB, (slashing), 14:35.
Second—2, Tampa Bay, Point 1, 0:25. 3, Florida, Brickley 1 (Petrovic), 12:21. 4, Florida, Pysyk 1 (Vrbata, Trocheck), 17:47. Penalties—McGinn, FLA, (slashing), 0:47; Sergachev, TB, (hooking), 5:03; Sceviour, FLA, (slashing), 13:33; Ekblad, FLA, (slashing), 19:40.
Third—5, Tampa Bay, Namestnikov 1 (Killorn, Stamkos), 0:59 (pp). 6, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 1, 6:38. 7, Florida, Huberdeau 1 (Dadonov, Yandle), 14:30. 8, Tampa Bay, Palat 2 (Point), 19:46. Penalties—Hedman, TB, (slashing), 16:49. Shots on Goal—Florida 10-12-14—36. Tampa Bay 6-11-8—25. PP opps—Florida 0 of 4; Tampa Bay 1 of 3. Goalies—Florida, Luongo 0-1-0 (24 shots-20 saves). Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 1-0-0 (36-33).