And he’s making an immediate impact.
The Lightning captain made his postseason debut Wednesday night in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Dallas Stars and scored on his first shot, beating Anton Khudobin at 6:58 of the opening period to give Tampa Bay a 2-0 lead.
The series is tied 1-1.
Stamkos had not played in a game since Feb. 25. On March 2, he underwent surgery to repair a core muscle surgery, and he had an initial recovery timeline of six to eight weeks. Stamkos joined his team for voluntary workouts over the summer but apparently reaggravated the injury and has had at least one setback since then.
“It would mean a lot to us. He’s our leader,” forward Pat Maroon said Monday of a potential Stamkos return. “He’s the guy that drives the bus in the locker room. It’s good to see him skating, seeing a smile on his face.”
In warm-ups, Stamkos took line rushes with Maroon and Cedric Paquette on what is usually the Lightning’s fourth line. In Stamkos’ absence, the top line of Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat has been buzzing. The trio have combined for 68 points, including 28 by Kucherov, which not only leads all players this summer but also is a franchise record for points in a single postseason.
The Lightning have remained optimistic about a Stamkos return all postseason, with general manager Julien BriseBois saying ahead of the Stanley Cup Final that he was “hopeful” that Stamkos could make a return.
Stamkos, who has 155 career power-play goals, is expected to get a role on Tampa Bay’s man advantage, which broke out of an 0-for-14 slump with two goals in Game 2.
“He changes the whole look on the power play, so that’s a big factor,” Dallas coach Rick Bowness, a former assistant with Tampa, said earlier this week. “We’re expecting him to play at some point, and we’ll just have to see how he’s utilized. But immediately, you’re concerned with the impact he’ll have on their power play.”
Stamkos hadn’t played in seven months, so it’s hard to gauge his level of impact. However, as teammate Blake Coleman noted, “his 80 percent is better than most guys’ 100 percent.”
The 30-year-old Stamkos has spent his career in Tampa Bay after being selected No. 1 overall in 2008. He was named Lightning captain in 2014. Since then, no team in the NHL has more postseason wins than the Lightning (51), but Tampa Bay has not won a Stanley Cup since its lone victory in 2004.
“I know it’s killing him more than anyone else not to be in the lineup,” Cooper said Monday. “He’s inching his way closer. There’s no doubt. You don’t get this many chances to be where we are. A) You want to be part of it, which he has. And he has helped the collective group with the mental thing of it. But B) he wants to be on the ice as well.”