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Lightning celebrate, then dominate in opener

Tampa Bay unveils Stanley Cup championship banner, then makes easy work of Blackhawks in 5-1 win.
Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) celebrates his power-play goal along with defenseman Victor Hedman (77) during the second period.
Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) celebrates his power-play goal along with defenseman Victor Hedman (77) during the second period. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 14, 2021
Updated Jan. 14, 2021

TAMPA — The Lightning claimed the Stanley Cup last season under the most unusual of circumstances — isolated and far from home. But their first game back in their home arena, a night set for celebration as they unveiled their championship banner and started their title defense, was even more atypical.

With no fans in the stands, Amalie Arena was full of only empty blue seats Wednesday night. Players saw their championship banner in the northwest corner of the arena for the first time, peeking over top of the boards, though it won’t be raised to the rafters until fans return to the building.

“I did get the chills when I saw it,” coach Jon Cooper said after the Lightning’s resounding 5-1 win over the Blackhawks. “It was, aside from getting two points tonight, that was the highlight of the night.”

Low enough to be within the players’ eyesight on every faceoff in the north offensive zone, the banner served as a constant reminder of the team’s goal: the rare feat of winning back-to-back Cups.

“I thought that was a really cool idea,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “We want to raise it with the fans. We think it’s really important to include them in that. So to just kind of do it the way we did, show everyone and leave it there, it actually looks pretty good there when there’s no fans.”

Once the puck dropped, the Lightning — wearing jerseys with minibanners on the right side of the chest for one night only — appeared driven. In a coronavirus-shortened 56-game season, it’s important to get off to a strong start, and the Lightning did that, running out to a 3-0 lead after one period and never looking back.

If there was any question about whether the Lightning would struggle on the power play out of the gate without the playmaking presence of Nikita Kucherov — out for at least the regular season because of hip surgery — they answered them early, scoring on two of their first three man advantages and three of four overall.

Related: Lightning get the party started, even if the volume is turned down low

The top power-play unit moves around a lot, and it made the Blackhawks’ penalty killers’ heads spin, particularly on Stamkos’s second-period score. Brayden Point lulled Chicago players to the right side before pinpointing a pass across the ice to Stamkos for a one-timer from the left circle that beat goalie Malcolm Subban top shelf.

“We know it’s probably going to continue to be a work in progress, for sure,” Stamkos said of the power play. “You can’t replace a guy like ‘Kuch.’ He’s so dynamic when he has the puck. He slows the puck and the play down so much in order to get guys open. We’ve worked on different combinations so far and in camp and in the scrimmages, and tonight we executed it.”

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Stamkos, back from two core muscle surgeries — the first, in early March, led him to playing only once afterward last season, 2:47 in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final against the Stars — has 11 power-play goals since the beginning of last season.

“Goal scorers are used to scoring goals,” Cooper said of Stamkos. “I was really happy that he was able to score tonight, because you put him back and in a power-play spot he hasn’t been in for a while and it’s a confidence thing, and so the sooner he can get it, the better.”

Related: Lightning winger Mathieu Joseph takes advantage of opening night promotion

Stamkos played well filling Kucherov’s spot on the top line alongside Point and Ondrej Palat. The trio, also key pieces of the top power-play unit, combined for six points on the night, three by Stamkos (also two assists).

“It’s the best I’ve felt in a long time,” Stamkos said. “I feel like I’m just going to build off of that and continue to get stronger as the season progresses. I haven’t played a lot of hockey for a long time, so it was a good start.”

Though goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy had a mostly quiet night, with 22 saves, he made a phenomenal save late in the second period when play began to lag. He stretched across the goal line to make a pad save to take away an open net from forward Andrew Shaw on a puck that was bouncing around the crease.

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.

Lightning 3-1-1—5

Blackhawks 0-0-1—1

First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Palat 1 (Hedman, Stamkos), 10:39 (pp). 2, Tampa Bay, Joseph 1 (Cirelli, Killorn), 16:18. 3, Tampa Bay, Cirelli 1 (Killorn, Cernak), 17:57. Penalties—Rutta, TB (Hooking), 7:27; de Haan, CHI (Interference), 10:08; Palat, TB (Interference), 19:12.

Second Period—4, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 1 (Point, Hedman), 9:56 (pp). Penalties—Boqvist, CHI (Holding), 4:01; Keith, CHI (Delay of Game), 9:17.

Third Period—5, Tampa Bay, Point 1 (Stamkos, Sergachev), 6:45 (pp). 6, Chicago, Strome 1 (Shaw, Boqvist), 16:36. Penalties—Keith, CHI (Slashing), 0:40; Goodrow, TB (Holding), 14:52.

Shots on Goal—Blackhawks 8-8-7_23. Lightning 13-13-7_33. Power-play opportunities—Blackhawks 0 of 3; Lightning 3 of 4. Goalies—Chicago: Subban (L, 0-1-0); Tampa Bay: Vasilevskiy (W, 1-0-0). T—2:26.

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