Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos scores goal in return; 'too early' to know status for Game 4

EDMONTON, Alberta -- Steven Stamkos made his triumphant return to Tampa Bay's lineup on Wednesday, a night the 30-year-old called "a dream come true."

Stamkos scored on the first shot he took in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, and the Lightning defeated the Dallas Stars 5-2 to take a 2-1 series lead. Stamkos became the first player since 1940 to score a goal while making his first postseason appearance in the Stanley Cup Final.

Stamkos played about three minutes, all in the first period, and was relegated to the bench for the second and third periods.

"You know he only had five shifts," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "But [it was] probably as efficient of five shifts you're ever going to see in a National Hockey League playoff game."

Said Stamkos: "There's been a lot of hard work and different things going on behind the scenes. Just to be able to get out into a game and have an impact on a game, which a month ago may have never been possible ... I was just really happy to obviously contribute in a game that I didn't play too much."

It has been a long road back for Stamkos, who hadn't played in a game in 211 days. He underwent surgery on March 2 to repair a core muscle injury, which 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.

Stamkos did not play from the second period on and was late getting back to the bench in the second period, staying in the locker room. After the game, he said he experienced an "issue," and it was "too early" to decide if he will be ready for Game 4, which is Friday.

Stamkos, whose injury has been designated only as "lower body," declined to elaborate on what he has been dealing with.

"There are a lot of behind-the-scenes things I can share with you after the season," he said. "But I'm focused on winning right now, and tonight was a step in the right direction."

Stamkos' goal, which put the Lightning ahead 2-0, came as he streaked down the boards and beat Stars goalie Anton Khudobin in the far corner. The Tampa Bay bench erupted once Stamos scored.

"I think that the cheer was just a little bit louder," Cooper said. "You watch the kid, what he's done for the last, god, how many months? And for him to be able to do that, I don't know. I think however Stammer was feeling at that moment, all the players expressed it on the bench."

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. Until Wednesday, Stamkos had not scored in a Stanley Cup Final; his only other appearance was a six-game loss to the Blackhawks in 2015. Stamkos registered only one assist in that series.

The Lightning had been optimistic that Stamkos would be available earlier in the playoffs, but it appeared that he hit some setbacks. The captain said he found out Tuesday after practice that he would be getting the nod.

"He's worked extremely hard to get back to a spot where he could play," teammate Brayden Point said. "Just seeing him day in and day out -- the positivity that he brings and the leadership that he brings -- it's nice to see him work that hard to get back into the lineup. And then to score one? It's pretty inspirational for everyone."