TAMPA — Quite simply, it was a Steven Stamkos type of goal — a wicked wrister from 43 feet that lifted the net just inside the post and just under the crossbar.
It was the type of goal that Lightning fans had grown accustomed to seeing from the 21-year-old star over the past two seasons. It was the type of goal that maybe a dozen or so players in the NHL are capable of scoring. But it was also the type of goal that Stamkos really hadn't delivered since who knows when.
Stamkos saved his best goal of these playoffs for the most critical moment of Tuesday night's Game 3 victory against the Capitals. With Tampa Bay trailing 3-2 just more than five minutes into the third, Stamkos scored his fourth — and, by far, his prettiest — goal of the postseason. Riding the momentum of Stamkos' goal, the Lightning scored 24 seconds later for a 4-3 lead which held up to give Tampa Bay a commanding 3-0 series lead.
"That," Lightning left wing Ryan Malone said, "was a rocket."
"(Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman) made a great play and kept the puck (in the zone)," Stamkos said. "I got the puck in the slot and took a couple of strides. I just tried to shoot the puck as hard as I could against the grain. I thought I might catch him going the other way."
He did. With Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth moving to his left, he could only flail his arm helplessly to his right as puck raced by his blocker.
"A great job," Neuvirth said.
"I maybe had a little extra adrenaline on that one," Stamkos said. "It was nice to get one."
Coming into these playoffs, there were concerns about Stamkos. He had scored 45 goals — second-most in the NHL — but had only five in the final 28 regular-season games, and just two in the final 13. He continued to look out of sorts in the playoffs until scoring two goals in the Game 5 victory against the Penguins in the first round. Since then, he has been a different player. In a good way.
"He's come a long, long way very, very fast," said Lightning coach Guy Boucher, who added that he was about to put Stamkos out for the last 30 seconds of Tuesday's game had there been a line change.
"That says a lot," Boucher said. "I'm real proud of him."
Stamkos said his comfort level is "night and day" compared to when these playoffs began. That was evident by his laser goal that could pan out to be the pivotal goal of this series.