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The return of Steven Stamkos was the magic we’ve been waiting to see

John Romano | The Lightning captain scored a goal on his first shot in a 5-2 win against Dallas in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final.
Steven Stamkos gets a congratulatory boost from Pat Maroon after the captain's first-period goal against the Stars on Wednesday night.
Steven Stamkos gets a congratulatory boost from Pat Maroon after the captain's first-period goal against the Stars on Wednesday night. [ MARKO DITKUN | Special to the Times ]
Published Sep. 24, 2020

We don’t know where he’s been, and we don’t know if he’ll be back. He disappeared late in the last winter and has been seen only briefly —and usually from a distance — ever since.

And as the days and victories began to stack up for the Tampa Bay Lightning, Steven Stamkos had to face the cruel possibility that the hockey grail he had spent a lifetime chasing was being earned by his teammates without him.

That’s what made Wednesday night one of those rare moments that are hard to imagine and harder still to forget.

For just a handful of seconds, Steven Stamkos was back where he belonged:

On the ice and in our hearts.

And, remarkably, on the scoresheet.

Related: Of course Steven Stamkos can’t play in the Stanley Cup final. Right?

The Lightning captain returned to the lineup for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final against Dallas, and scored a goal on the first shot he had taken in nearly seven months. He raised his stick briefly in the air, then leapt into the arms of teammate Pat Maroon.

I don’t know if it was an answer to his prayers or ours, but it was the sight we sorely needed in a year that already has felt like a century. And now, with Wednesday’s 5-2 victory, the Lightning are just two wins from hoisting the Stanley Cup.

“It’s been such a long time,” Stamkos said. “At this time of the year, you want to do anything you can to help your team win. I’ve watched these guys be so committed to what our end goal is. To be part of it tonight, it was a dream come true.”

Will the dream continue for Stamkos in this series?

No one was willing to say Wednesday night, although it seems unlikely. The details of the core muscle injury that required surgery nearly seven months ago — and whatever setbacks Stamkos apparently suffered in June or July — are still being closely guarded by the Lightning.

Stamkos played fewer than three minutes in Game 3, and did not say whether he would be healthy enough to play in the rest of the series.

But that’s tomorrow’s worry.

Related: Lightning’s Steven Stamkos returns, scores, still managing injury in Game 3

For now, the story of Stamkos in Tampa Bay has an uplifting new chapter. Around here, he has been a savior and a savant. A scoring champ, and a community hero. And, increasingly, an object of whispers and innuendos.

One injury after another has robbed his career of time and luster. It’s wrong to call him brittle and it’s foolish to suggest he is soft.

His injuries have never been repetitive or suspect. They are the unfortunate results of playing a brutal game. He has broken a leg, torn up a knee, suffered blood clots and now the surgery for something akin to a sports hernia.

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“It’s tough because he’s had some unfortunate things happen to him at inopportune times,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. "He’s missed playoff games for us, but he’s a competitor and I don’t think you become the player he is without having that drive. You can’t do it. That’s what separates the good from the great.

“To be able to come back and do what he did in this limited time he had is pretty remarkable.”

Without going into detail, Stamkos, 30, said the odds of this happening a month ago did not seem possible. Even at the start of the Stanley Cup final, the Lightning were noncommittal about his chances of getting on the ice.

There were rumors that he left the bubble in Toronto for a short return to Tampa Bay, and his lack of public appearances made for wild speculation. He showed up on the ice in street clothes, with a jersey on top, for the trophy presentation after the Lightning won the Eastern Conference title, and his teammates talked about how much he had contributed behind the scenes.

Related: Lightning-Stars Game 3 report card: Core four plus a bonus

“I’ve tried to do my best in that regard,” Stamkos said Wednesday night. “But it’s so painful to just sit and watch and feel like you have no part of the game, because you’re way more nervous watching the games. You want to have a say and you want to contribute so tonight was, like I said before, an amazing experience.”

He barely played another minute after scoring his goal, remaining in the locker room for part of the second period before spending the rest of the night on the bench.

In a way, maybe that was best. Maybe we only needed to see Stamkos taking a pass from Victor Hedman in the neutral zone, slipping past a slower defender and rifling a shot past a goaltender in the only spot a puck would fit. Maybe we don’t need to see him struggle to play significant minutes going forward.

You know, for once, the pandemic may have done us a favor. There’s no need to ask where anyone was on this memorable night.

We were all home, watching Steven Stamkos.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay,com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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