Steven Stamkos played 2:47 in his first game back since February 25 on Wednesday night. Five shifts, one hit, one shot, one goal. And that may be all we see of Stamkos for the rest of the Stanley Cup Finals. That’s it. All the speculation of whether or not he would return, all the hype of him practicing with the team, all the guessing if he would or wouldn’t suit up – then the explosion of emotion when he not only returned but buried a goal past Anton Khudobin in the first period.
But maybe that’s all the Lightning needed.
This team has battled through some grueling playoff series. They were physically beaten and battered against the Columbus Blue Jackets – and still had the black cloud of 2019 looming overhead – but they found a way to get the job done. They were quickly down 1-0 to the Boston Bruins and had allowed the Bruins to tie game two in the closing minutes – but they found a way to get it together and win four straight. Then it was the Islanders who fought harder than either of the previous two foes, forcing a game six while doling out hit after hit after hit. But the Lightning got the job done.
And Stamkos was there, in the bubble, in the locker room, in rehab for his injury, the whole way.
Say what you will about Stammer. Some believe he’s a waste of money, that the Lightning don’t need him, that he’s always hurt when the team needs him most. After game three, there is no question that he is the heart and soul of this team.
His teammates have watched him battle through this injury, fight to get back, face a complication and more adversity, and continue to fight. Stamkos very easily could have said that he wasn’t going to be able to play and stay home with his family. He very easily could have thrown in the towel after the first or second or third round and left the bubble.
That’s not who Steven Stamkos is.
He was with his teammates, helping out any way he could. Providing support, providing leadership to the guys he’s been with since they joined the Lightning. Being the first one to greet them after victories. They witnessed his struggles – their captain – trying to join them, to help them in this absolutely wild and unprecedented postseason.
For a team that has been stuck in a hotel room – well, two hotels since they did get to move bubbles – especially one that didn’t deliver as promised, seeing him battle through all of this and look them in the eyes and say, “I’m joining you. I’ll be out there with you tonight,” gave them a burst unlike any they could ask for under the circumstances.
Look no further than Alex Killorn after Stamkos scored his goal. I mean, the whole bench erupted, but really watch the childlike excitement and thrill pouring out of Killer;
Then, look at the man who has stepped up in Stamkos’ on-ice absence as the unquestioned leader of this team – Victor Hedman. He was asked about it via a Twitter submission and he had this to say;
This is what leaders are. This is what they do. It takes true leadership, a love of your teammates, and a strong mentality to go through the adversity Stammer has. And last night’s performance – albeit, less than three minutes on the ice – is the culmination of all of that. These players were told families could come stay with them in the bubble if they got far enough. That turned out to be a promise the NHL couldn’t cash in – but the Lightning did get to see their family. Their brother, their leader, their captain returned and provided a spark you can’t manufacture.
So, if those two minutes and forty-seven seconds are all we see if him, that’s enough. The Lightning know, they witnessed first hand what he went through and sacrificed to be out there for those moments with them. He came in, he contributed, and he elevated the mindset of his team. They were given new life, a breath of fresh air and that may be exactly what this team needs to close this series out and become champions for the first time since 2004.
Because that’s what captains do.