EDMONTON, AB — The Tampa Bay Lightning are the NHL's best offensive team. They flexed for the Cup on Wednesday night.
With captain and superstar forward Steven Stamkos back in the lineup for the first time since Feb. 25, the Lightning scorched the Dallas Stars in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, 5-2, from the NHL bubble in Edmonton.
Before the game, Lightning coach Jon Cooper played some mind games with reporters (and the Stars) by saying Stamkos was "inching closer."
Stamkos was on the ice for warm-ups and, sure enough, the six-time All-Star played his first game since suffering a lower body injury on Feb. 25.
Six minutes and 58 seconds into Game 3, Stamkos ripped the puck past Stars goalie Anton Khudobin to give the Lightning a 2-0 lead.
The 30-year-old superstar is one of the best forwards of the last decade. In the 2019-2020 regular season, Stamkos totaled 66 points in 59 games.
His mere presence gave the rest of the Lightning team an emotional lift.
"Stammer, he's our leader," said Tampa forward Anthony Cirelli. "He's our captain. If you give him one opportunity, he's going to make it count. Huge goal for us."
However, Stamkos' playoff debut was short-lived. He lasted five shifts (2:47 total time on ice) before aggravating the injury and sitting the rest of the game.
“He only had five shifts, but it's probably as efficient of five shifts you're ever going to see," Cooper said after the game. "You just have to marvel at it. It was pretty damn cool."
Stamkos was one of five different goal-scorers for the Lightning in Game 3.
Naturally, the five goal-scorers are Tampa's five most talented offensive weapons at the moment.
Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov scored the first goal in the opening period -- his second straight game with two points.
The 27-year-old star now has a Lightning franchise record 30 points in the postseason -- tied for 28th most all-time in a Stanley Cup playoffs.
Kucherov is the sixth player to total 30 or more points in the playoffs since 2000. He has at least two more games to pad his total.
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman continued his postseason scoring.
After a foolish penalty from Stars forward Alexander Radulov, the 29-year-old Hedman sniped the puck past Khudobin on the power play to put Tampa up 3-1.
It was Hedman's 10th goal of the playoffs -- the fourth-most of all-time by a defenseman in the postseason.
The goal took the life out of the Stars, who had some momentum after forward Jason Dickinson scored a shorthanded goal late in the 1st Period to get Dallas within one, 2-1.
From my Stanley Cup Preview: “The Lightning are 9-2 this postseason when Victor Hedman totals at least one point.”
Game 1: 0 points — L
Game 2: 2 points — W
Game 3: 3 points — W
*The Lightning are now 11-2 this postseason when Hedman totals at least point.
Hedman's goal regained the momentum for the Lightning and they scored twice more in the second period, courtesy of Brayden Point's playoff-leading 11th goal and Ondrej Palat's 10th.
Palat does not get the same attention as Hedman, Kucherov, Point and Stamkos, but he has been terrific all postseason.
Like those four aforementioned (minus Point), Palat was a member of that 2015 Lightning team that went to the Cup but lost to the Chicago Blackhawks. Their cumulative Cup experience is paying off.
If this article seems awfully Lightning-heavy, then now you understand how the game went.
The Stars saved a bit of face with a third period goal from defenseman Miro Heiskanen, but by then Dallas had thrown in the proverbial towel by taking out Khudobin for back-up goalie Jake Oettinger.
Heiskanen snapped his eight-game scoring drought with his sixth goal (24th point) of the postseason.
Adding injury to insult... A couple Stars forwards took shots to the face and, of course, it was the two forwards who have been the most clutch for Dallas in the playoffs.
In the third period, Radulov tumbled into the boards head-first. He went back to the locker room, returned to the bench and then went back to the locker room.
Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness did not have an update on Radulov's status after the game.
Late in the third period, Stars forward Denis Gurianov caught a loose puck to the face. He also went back to the locker room.
Radulov scored the overtime game-winners in Game 6 vs. Calgary and Game 3 vs. Vegas.
Gurianov was the hero in Game 5 of the West Final to clinch the Stars' spot in the Cup Final.
The Stars need them on the ice if they're going to have any chance of winning the Cup.
Heading into Game 4, one thing is crystal clear: the Stars cannot fall behind early to the Lightning.
Dallas went down 3-0 in Game 2 and 2-0 in Game 3. The Stars could not overcome the slow starts against a dangerous Lightning squad.
The Stars have mounted some improbable and remarkable comebacks this postseason, but I've said it once and I'll say it again -- slow starts against this Lightning team are playing with fire.
Tampa is not Calgary or Colorado or Vegas.
The Lightning are the top-scoring team of 2019-2020-- giving them a two or three goal head start is an express train to an "L."
If the Stars stop digging holes they can't climb out of, they might have a chance.
Game 3 was a good ole fashioned butt-whoopin' from the Lightning. They controlled the game from start to finish and didn't let the Stars rally late.
Game 4 is the swing game. For the Stars, they either go down 3-1 or tie it up 2-2.
If there's one thing we know this postseason, never count out these Stars.