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Stamkos strikes early, but watches from bench as Lightning dominate Stars

EDMONTON — Seen Stamkos?

Back in 2008, when the Tampa Bay Lightning drafted Steven Stamkos first overall, their promotions department used him in a season-ticket campaign that had the phrase “Seen Stamkos?” plastered across the Tampa-St. Petersburg region.

Twelve years later, as Stamkos returned to the Lightning’s lineup in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday after missing 210 days with a core muscle injury, Stamkos was seen — but not for long. He lasted just five shifts and 2:47 of ice time before apparently reaggravating his injury.

Stamkos, however, scored a brilliant first-period goal in Tampa’s 5-2 win over the Dallas Stars, as the Lightning took a 2-1 lead in this rare Stanley Cup being contested in a month traditionally reserved for training camp.

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Stamkos didn’t take a shift in the final 6:18 of the first period, was late for the start of the second period and when he did emerge from the Tampa dressing room it was only to take a permanent seat on the Lightning bench, where he provided moral support for the remainder of the evening.

Will he play again in this Final? It would seem doubtful.

This game was all Lightning all the time, save for about a 10-minute Stars burst after they fell behind 2-0 before the game was seven minutes old.

Young phenom Miro Heiskanen got the Dallas night started on the wrong skate when his blind pass into the middle of the ice was picked off at the Dallas blue line by Nikita Kucherov, who walked in alone and zipped a low wrist shot past Anton Khudobin. Then, almost 90 seconds later, Stamkos made what will likely be his only imprint on this series.

The Lightning captain took a pass in full flight down the right-wing wall, barely squeezing past an attempted hip check by Stars defenceman Esa Lindell. Stamkos re-collected the puck, veered inside the circle to Khudobin’s glove side and wired a shot up under the bar to the far side.

It was a brilliant glimpse at the superior skill of Stamkos that fans have been missing since the 30-year-old had core muscle surgery on March 2. Stamkos reinjured himself at some point before the restart, and has been with his team for the entire ride.

Dallas briefly crawled back into the game on a goal by Jason Dickinson that left them trailing 2-1 after 20 minutes. But Stars penalties and a circus act by the high-flying Lightning top unit was simply too much for Dallas to handle in a three-goal second period for Tampa.

Victor Hedman scored on the power play, then the Kucherov line with Ondrej Palat and Brayden Point scored twice, chasing Khudobin, who like Stamkos watched the third period from the bench. The Kucherov-Palat-Point unit closed the night with a goal each and six points between them.

It was the first of three games in four nights, with Games 4 and 5 being played Friday and Saturday, a rare back to back in this odd autumnal Stanley Cup Final.

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