Steven Stamkos had the puck bounce to his stick at the bottom of the left face-off circle less than a minute into the game. He was on his forehand. The left side of the net was open.
The Tampa Bay Lightning captain, with 439 NHL goals, wasn’t going to miss from there.
Stamkos’ first goal of the Stanley Cup Semifinals came 45 seconds into Game 5 at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida, on Monday. It was his first of two in the game and the first for the Lightning in an 8-0 win against the New York Islanders that gave them the lead in the best-of-7 series.
It was big for so many reasons.
“It certainly gives you some confidence for the rest of the night,” Stamkos said. “We talked about it, our line internally, we wanted to be better and we certainly were tonight. So it was great to see. Anytime something that good happens early in a game it’s always a great feeling as a player. But more importantly it was a spark and a big jump for our team.”
Arguably nobody on the Lightning needed that spark and jump more than Stamkos.
He had one point in the series entering Game 5, a secondary assist on defenseman Victor Hedman‘s power-play goal in Game 2, a 4-2 Tampa Bay win.
He had five shots on goal in the series, including one in a 3-2 loss in Game 4 on Saturday, when he played 12:05, his least ice time in a game in these Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Stamkos had 11 shot attempts through the first four games, uncharacteristic for one of the League’s most prolific shooters. But in Game 5 he scored two goals on five shots on goal in 15:55 of ice time. He had eight shot attempts, four hits and an assist, winning seven of 11 face-offs.
“Sometimes you have to simplify your game a little bit and that was the case with ‘Stammer’,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “Tonight, he was shooting the puck and he wanted it. He was determined tonight and good for him.”
Stamkos delivered amid questions about his lack of production against the Islanders and whether he’s playing hurt. His line with Alex Killorn and Anthony Cirelli had no goals in the series and no points at even strength entering Game 5.
They combined for 31 points (14 goals, 17 assists) and 71 shots in 11 games through the first two rounds, including 16 points (eight goals, eight assists) at even strength. Stamkos scored 13 points (five goals, eight assists), including five at even strength (two goals, three assists).
“I think the quote was from me, ‘It was just a matter of time,’ ” Cooper said. “Tonight was time.”
Killorn also scored two goals and had an assist Monday. Cirelli had an assist. The line combined for four points at even strength (two goals, two assists) and seven overall (four goals, three assists).
“They were getting rewarded now for some of the work,” Cooper said. “I thought those guys were in command of their game, they were all working.”
Stamkos was asked in the morning how he feels physically, particularly because he missed the last 16 games of the regular season with a lower-body injury and the Lightning were getting ready to play their 15th playoff game.
“Good enough to play,” Stamkos said.
That was vague enough to lead to a follow-up question about whether he’s limited because of an injury.
“I’m not going to get into that now,” Stamkos said.
Hurt or not, he found a way to help his team win Game 5, doing so by getting something good to happen early in the game.
The boost to his confidence he mentioned was evident when he scored his second goal with a vintage one-timer on the power play from the left circle, wiring it high to the short side at 5:42 of the second period and giving Tampa Bay a 4-0 lead.
“He had the one earlier and I think he was feeling it, and when he’s feeling it good things happen,” Lightning forward Brayden Point said. “We’ve seen that shot on our team a whole bunch. He’s got one of the best releases in the League. He puts pucks into mail slots sometimes. That was a great shot for us, big time in the game for him to get his second. He was on tonight.”
Stamkos got an assist on Point’s power-play goal that made it 7-0 at 1:59 of the third period.
There shouldn’t be any questions about his production or health before Game 6 at Nassau Coliseum on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).
“He delivered,” Cooper said.