Stamkos at his best in Lightning Game 3 win (w/video)

How did Steven Stamkos impact Game 3? This goal in the first period is just the start of perhaps his best postseason game — ever.
How did Steven Stamkos impact Game 3? This goal in the first period is just the start of perhaps his best postseason game — ever.
Published May 21, 2015


Steven Stamkos darted into the Rangers zone with very bad intentions and a thirst for blood. You half expected to hear that ominous theme from Jaws.

Rangers right wing Kevin Hayes circled around the net with the puck, completely unaware that Stamkos was on a mission to do some damage and Hayes was the target.

Before anyone could yell "Heads-up!" Stamkos blasted into Hayes, sending the Rangers forward crumpling to the ice.

It was one of those hits that sends a charge into the building and sets a tone for the game. With that check, the Lightning captain did exactly what a captain is supposed to do. He led by example and sparked the team —his team — to a 6-5 overtime victory in Wednesday night's Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final against the Rangers.

"He was on tonight," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "Stammer is more than just a scorer. As these playoffs have gone on and on, he has gotten stronger. You see things like (the hit on Hayes) and that brought our whole bench up, and I think that kind of triggered our whole physicality when your captain does stuff like that."

Steven Stamkos grew up Wednesday night. His evolution as a team leader now complete. This is the Stamkos that Lightning fans have been waiting for since these playoffs began.

A star. A difference-maker. Most of all, a leader in every sense.

It was his best game of this postseason, maybe the best he has ever had in the postseason. And, considering the importance of the game, maybe the most important performance of his already-spectacular career.

Game 3 was Stammer Time.

It wasn't just about goals, although Stamkos, who struggled to find the net early in these playoffs, did score one of those, and an important one at that. His fifth goal of the playoffs was the Lightning's first of the game and came at a crucial time. Trailing 2-0 midway through the first period, Tampa Bay was on the verge of being run out of its building. But Stamkos' goal gave the team life and hope.

"Huge goal," Cooper said.

It wasn't just about assists, although Stamkos did add one of those, and an important one at that. He had the second helper on Ondrej Palat's second-period power-play goal that gave the Lightning a 3-2 lead.

It was everything else he did that made a difference. And what else did he do? Well, everything.

He played with a snarl. He played with an edge. He played with passion. He played like a player who wasn't going to let his team go down without giving everything he had, with or without the puck, in the offensive or defensive zone. And on the ice and in the locker room.

He always has been a wonderful player. He has worn the captain's C for more than a year now. But, on Wednesday, he played like a true leader.

Stamkos played exactly the way you want your entire team to play at this stage of the playoffs and provided the example for his teammates to follow, particularly by throwing his body around.

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"I don't go out there and do that just because I'm the captain," he said. "I do that because I want to try to swing some momentum our way. I've never been shy to get involved in that. For me, too, it gets me going when I can play with a more physical edge. Tonight, it worked out."

It worked out because Stamkos' teammates followed. All of them.

There was Nikita Kucherov, whose second overtime goal of these playoffs was the one that sent the Amalie Arena crowd partying out of the doors. There was Palat, who notched two goals, including one with 5:55 left in the third period that broke a 4-4 tie.

Little Big Man Tyler Johnson continued his torrid scoring pace, adding his league-leading 12th postseason goal. Alex Killorn, who has shown up in a big way this postseason, added his sixth goal of the playoffs.

Defenseman Victor Hedman added another sensational game to his quickly growing reputation as one of the league's elite defensemen. Goalie Ben Bishop, despite five goals allowed, made big saves when big saves were required.

Ultimately, pick a player with a lightning bolt on his chest and that player played with everything he had. Maybe because they saw how hard Stamkos was playing.

"I definitely wanted to come out and play hard," Stamkos said. "I felt great before the game. Sometimes you have a feeling that your legs are going and you're feeling good."

Starting with his Rock'em Sock'em hit on Hayes, Stamkos ran over anything wearing a white jersey. When he wasn't plowing over Rangers, he was giving it to the officials, sticking up for his team.

"A lot of people talked about him not scoring enough," defense­man Anton Stralman said. "Night in and night out he does his job, no matter if he scores or not. He's playing physical and giving us a lot of energy."

In other words, leading. Like a captain. Like a captain should.