TAMPA — Give me the fairy tale.
Give me a tie score, and a screaming crowd. Give me thunder and rain and Lightning. Give me daring on the ice, and prayers in the bleachers.
And in the end, give me Steven Stamkos with a shot that lives forever.
Would there be a better story in Tampa Bay lore? The Lightning meet the Canadiens in Game 5 Wednesday night with the Stanley Cup hanging in the balance, and the salary cap police waiting outside the locker room doors.
This is a moment that has been 13 years in the making, ever since the Lightning finished dead last in the NHL and John Tortorella lost his job. Tampa Bay cashed in its 48.2 percent chance in the draft lottery, and won the right to choose a teenaged Stamkos with the No. 1 pick.
He never did become Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin or Mario Lemieux, but Stamkos is the most prolific goal scorer in Lightning history and he is among the most beloved athletes the Tampa Bay community has ever known.
And, like it or not, there is at least a small possibility this could be his final game wearing a Lightning jersey.
Stamkos, 31, has a full no-trade clause in his contract so he will ultimately decide when his time in Tampa Bay is completed, but the Lightning appeared to be contemplating a trade last season and might explore it again this summer in order to re-sign potential free agents.
From a cold-hearted numbers perspective, a trade makes sense. Stamkos’ $8.5 million salary was considered team friendly when he signed five years ago, but the Lightning have younger, more valuable scorers in the lineup and a desperate need to free up cap space.
From a sentimental perspective, a trade sounds abhorrent.
Stamkos is the very blueprint of a local hero, even if his body has occasionally betrayed him and his on-ice impact has slowly dwindled. He has been humble and accountable. Polite and responsible. Above all else, he has been loyal. He’s never left, and he’s never complained. He lived through some lean years with the Lightning, and is now enjoying the best two-year run any Tampa Bay franchise has known.
He got his name on the Stanley Cup last year and even got a time-capsule moment when he dragged his ailing torso onto the ice and scored a goal against Dallas in Game 3 of the finals in the only 2:47 of ice time he got in the entire postseason.
But this is the postseason that Stamkos has worked his entire career to reach. The Lightning lost in his first trip to the Stanley Cup final in 2015, and he was a spectator for almost all of that 2020 run.
This time around he is healthy, or at least reasonably so, and he’s scored a career-high eight postseason goals. He’s been huge on the power play and crucial in the locker room as coach Jon Cooper’s go-to guy for taking temperatures and passing along messages at the right moment.
Stamkos even got the game-winner in Game 4 against the Hurricanes with a power-play goal late in the second period of a 4-4 game, but he has not yet had that special, defining play you have been waiting to see.
Even with his role on special teams, Stamkos is seventh among Tampa Bay forwards in ice time during the playoffs. He averaged better than a point per game during the first two rounds against Florida and Carolina, but has had less playing time and far less impact in the last two rounds.
Some of that might be due to matchups, and some of it might simply be a small sample size. No matter the reason, the time is right for an enduring Stamkos moment.
Of course, a Stanley Cup title is rare enough that the details need not be exaggerated. And, should it come tonight or in the coming days, the players and community will celebrate gratefully no matter whose name ends up in the headlines.
But there is some poetic justice to the idea of Stamkos delivering the decisive blow. Maybe even a sense of closure for the player, and a nod toward nostalgia for longtime fans.
Just imagine Victor Hedman sending a pass to Nikita Kucherov on the right side of the ice, and Kucherov faking a shot before delivering the puck to Stamkos in the left faceoff circle. The stick draws back, and the shot is delivered as the years pass before your eyes.
Oh, yes please, give me the fairy tale.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
• • •
Sign up for Lightning Strikes, a weekly newsletter from Bolts beat writer Eduardo A. Encina that brings you closer to the ice.