The usual suspects showed up on the scoresheet again for the Lightning on Wednesday night.
Nikita Kucherov. Brayden Point. Victor Hedman. Ondrej Palat.
And one that was unexpected: Steven Stamkos.
While Stamkos' night was abbreviated, there’s no question he helped shape the outcome of a game that gave Tampa Bay its first series lead in the Stanley Cup final.
The captain’s presence in the lineup for Game 3 after a near seven-month absence gave the Lightning a visible lift, and his goal on his first shot handed Tampa Bay a quick two-goal lead.
That Stamkos' night was cut short after the first period was disappointing, but not disconcerting.
His teammates picked him up, as they have throughout the postseason.
And as has been the case for most of the past two months, it was the team’s best players who did the heaviest lifting.
Kucherov opened the scoring and set up Point for Tampa Bay’s fourth goal. Hedman potted maybe the most important goal of the game and sprung Stamkos for his goal, one of his two assists. And Point and Palat each contributed a goal and an assist.
Look at the Lightning’s playoff points leaders, and you’ll see those four names at the top of the list.
Here is how we graded the rest of the Lightning’s performance in their 5-2 win:
Forcible on the forecheck
The Lightning forwards were relentless on the forecheck early, forcing Dallas' defensemen to move the puck quicker than they might have liked. It paid off just over five minutes into the game, when pressure from Palat caused Miro Heiskanen to lose his edge as he tried to spin away from a check just outside the Stars blue line. The defenseman inadvertently passed to Kucherov, creating a breakaway that ended with the puck in the back of the Dallas net. The forecheck was even more ferocious in the second period, swarming the Stars and creating problems getting the puck out of their zone. All five Lightning players were involved, generating turnovers in multiple zones, and getting shots to the net. The Lightning outshot the Stars 21-4 in the period.
Can’t contain Kuch
The Stars continued to try to get Kucherov off his game with physical play, but they were no more successful than in Game 2. Alexander Radulov hit him up high as Kucherov came out of the corner after playing the puck along the sideboards early in the first period. Shortly afterward, Heiskanen turned the puck over in the neutral zone, Kucherov found the puck on his stick, and he was off to the races, beating Anton Khudobin high on the stick side. Kucherov doesn’t miss often in those situations, and he didn’t this time.
One happy return
Stamkos' return gave the Lightning some early jump. Jon Cooper got him involved quickly, playing him on the fourth line with Patrick Maroon and Cedric Paquette, and Stamkos repaid his coach by scoring on his first shot (on his third shift). Taking a diagonal pass through the neutral zone from Hedman, Stamkos beat defenseman Esa Lindell down the wall, then scored top corner on a snap shot from the right circle. Though he played only 2:47 over five shifts, Stamkos stayed involved from the bench, shouting instructions, cheering and congratulating teammates, who clearly were happy to have him back.
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The Lightning got a wakeup call just over four minutes after Stamkos' goal when they allowed their first short-handed goal of the playoffs. A turnover started the trouble, then Point and Kucherov lost a puck battle to Roope Hintz in the left corner of the Tampa Bay zone. Hintz fed Jason Dickinson, who beat Andrei Vasilevskiy with a shot from the left circle. Vasilevskiy appeared to be off his angle and seemed surprised by the one-timer that got past him on the short side. The goal came during a stretch when the Stars were significantly outshooting and out-chancing the Lightning, and Vasilevskiy came back with four or five big saves following the goal to largely limit the damage.
Turning the tide
Hedman’s goal 54 seconds into the second period might have been the turning point. The Lightning led by a goal after the first period but were outshot in the frame, 16-8. Radulov opened the door for Tampa Bay when he was penalized for hooking Blake Coleman with 22.4 seconds left in the period. The Lightning carried 1:38 of power-play time into the second period and needed less than a minute to restore their two-goal lead. After some good work down low by Anthony Cirelli, Palat and Point, Cirelli dove to beat Hintz to the puck in the right circle. He passed to Hedman, who beat Khudobin over the blocker from the high slot for his 10th goal of the postseason. Among defensemen, only Paul Coffey and Brian Leetch have more in a playoff year. Hedman also made the defensive play of the game, catching up to Denis Gurianov from behind and pulling his stick away from the puck before he could get off a shot on a first-period breakaway.
Making them pay
Like Kucherov, Point will make an opponent pay for even the smallest mistake. And the two of them did just that 12 minutes into the second period. A bad shift change by the Stars and a turnover in the neutral zone created an opportunity off the rush, and Point beat Khudobin stick side from the left circle after a cross-ice pass from Kucherov. Hedman, who hit Kucherov in stride with a cross-ice pass through the neutral zone from the Lightning blue line, picked up the secondary assist. Earlier in the game, Point blocked a Jamie Benn shot in front of the Lightning net after an errant pass from Vasilevskiy deflected off Point’s stick into the slot. The block was crucial, as Vasilevskiy had become entangled with Radulov’s stick as he skated out from behind the net.