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The Lightning Gain Stamkos, and the Lead

EDMONTON, Alberta — Steven Stamkos didn’t need much time to make his mark on the Stanley Cup finals. In his first game since February, the Tampa Bay captain helped put his team within two games of winning a title when he scored on his only shot of the game, a 5-2 win for the Lightning over the Dallas Stars on Wednesday night.

“It was just an amazing experience to share with my teammates,” Stamkos said. “It was amazing to be part of a huge win for us and I was just really happy to contribute in a game that I didn’t play too much.”

Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat also scored for Tampa Bay, while Dallas got a shorthanded goal from Jason Dickinson and one at even strength from Miro Heiskanen.

Andrei Vasilevskiy picked up his playoff-leading 16th win with a 22-save effort. Anton Khudobin made 24 saves through 40 minutes for his second-straight loss. The backup goaltender Jake Oettinger took over in the third period, making three stops.

The Lightning now lead the series two games to one, with back-to-back games coming up on Friday and Saturday.

ImageVictor Hedman, right, had a goal and two assists for the Lightning.
Credit…Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Stamkos played just two minutes and 47 seconds over five first-period shifts, while becoming the second player in N.H.L. history — and the first in more than 80 years — to score while playing his first postseason game of the year in the finals.

“He only had five shifts, but probably as efficient of five shifts you’re ever going to see in a National Hockey League playoff game,” said Lightning Coach Jon Cooper, who admitted that he didn’t expect Stamkos to have any ice-time limitations when he put him into Wednesday’s lineup.

Stamkos said that he was cleared to play on Tuesday, but he declined to further explain what kept him sidelined, or why he didn’t take a shift after the first period. He did stay on the bench for the final 40 minutes and go through the congratulatory line with his teammates at the end of the game.

“There’s been a lot of behind-the-scenes things that I’ll be glad to share with you guys after the season,” he said. “We’re focused on winning right now, and tonight was a step in the right direction.”

A core-muscle injury ended Stamkos’s regular season on Feb. 25 and caused him to have surgery in March. Before he was sidelined, he had been on a 15-game point streak in which he had 12 goals and 10 assists.

Originally expected to play much earlier in the postseason, Stamkos had been with his teammates ever since the Lightning entered the N.H.L. bubble in Toronto in late July.

In addition to Stamkos’s goal, the Lightning’s other stars delivered offensively. Five minutes and 33 seconds into the first period, Nikita Kucherov tallied his playoff-leading 29th point when he streaked down the slot and beat Khudobin after an uncharacteristic giveaway by Heiskanen at Dallas’s blue line. Kucherov added his 30th point on an assist in the second period.

Credit…Perry Nelson/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

Barely a minute after Kucherov opened the scoring, Stamkos’s goal came when he cut in off the boards and surprised Khudobin with a quick snap shot from just above the right-wing face-off dot, eliciting a raucous cheer from the Lightning bench.

“You watch the kid, what he’s done for the last however-many months,” Cooper said. “For him to be able to do that — I think however Stammer was feeling at that moment, all the players expressed it on the bench.”

Defenseman Jan Rutta also scored his first postseason point on Stamkos’s goal. Injured in round-robin play back in August, he didn’t get back into the lineup until Game 2 of the finals.

“They made two good shots early,” the Stars captain Jamie Benn said. “They capitalized on their chances and we didn’t.”

“I thought the first period, we made some mistakes from key guys who normally don’t make mistakes. And we paid we for that,” Dallas Coach Rick Bowness said. “Then we just started scrambling.”

The Stars have made a habit of pushing back when they fall behind in games. On Wednesday, they did their best to complete their ninth comeback of the playoffs, but they fell short. They outshot the Lightning 16-8 in the first period and narrowed the score to 2-1 with Dickinson’s shorthanded goal, but couldn’t get any closer.

Alexander Radulov took a hooking penalty late in the first period, then Hedman extended the Lightning lead just 54 seconds into the second, scoring his 10th of the postseason on the power play with a quick wrist shot from the high slot.

Tampa Bay dominated the middle frame, outshooting Dallas 21-4 and adding two more goals. Brayden Point picked up his playoff-high 11th goal of the postseason at 12:02, then helped set up linemate Ondrej Palat for his 10th at 18:55.

“I think the energy on our bench and the confidence in one another, the trust in one another was something incredible,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “We were just rallying so hard for one another and trying to pick each other up that whole game.”

Heiskanen scored the only goal of the third period, a sharp-angle shot for his 24th postseason point, tying him with Brett Hull for a Dallas Stars team record.

Both teams also continued to use physical play to try to set the tone for upcoming games. The final hit count was 59-54 in favor of the Stars — the third-straight game with more than 100 hits.

After crashing into the end boards following a missed hit midway through the third, Radulov did not return. The Stars were also without forward Blake Comeau, who was injured on a hit from McDonagh midway through Game 2. Nick Caamano drew in as his replacement, for his first-career playoff game.

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